Darwin, the birdiest capital on the planet?

After the initial shock of stepping out of the air-conditioned airport into the sauna that is Darwin, I find the heat energising because it is these tropical conditions that lead to an exuberant abundance of birdlife in the Darwin area.

I wasn’t to be disappointed. In just over half a day I managed to see 98 species, 80 of which were new for my Big Week list.

First up I was joined by shorebird researcher, Amanda Lilleyman for a spot of wader watching out at Buffalo Creek, part of the Shoal Bay (Darwin) Key Biodiversity Area, one of 316 nature hotspots around the country identified by BirdLife for the IUCN. To qualify for KBA status an area has to be extremely important to wildlife. And you could see from the thousands of shorebirds starting to feed on the mudflats exposed by the dropping tides, this place definitely fits the bill.

I have to admit that I am a little rusty when it comes to identifying the members of flocks of waders and was struggling to keep up with the numbers of birds Amanda was counting as she scanned through the flocks. I was so busy entering numbers into the app that by the time I looked up I had completely missed the half dozen Sanderlings that Amanda had picked out among the thousand birds present on the beach.

Great knot Image: Andrew Silcocks

Eastern Curlew, Red and Great Knots, Greater and Lesser Sand Plovers, Whimbrel, Grey-tailed Tattler; the species list kept on mounting. Impressively, there were over 500 Great Knots, a very pleasing number of a bird that has had a momentous population crash due to the loss of much of the mudflats along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway that they rely on to refuel on their journey to their breeding grounds in the Arctic. We also saw about a dozen Eastern Curlews, another bird whose numbers have crashed dramatically in the last 30 years, and the focus of Amanda’s research.

A Sea-Eagle cruised overhead, a Black-necked Stork waded serenely and unusually, a single Australian Pratincole stood on the shore among the other shorebirds. At this time of year, this tan coloured species, with sleek flight like a gull, would normally be expected out on the inland plains, but here it was getting its feet wet in the Arafura Sea.

Along the banks of the nearby mangrove-lined creek we managed to see much of the bustling early morning bird life including the smart looking Red-headed Honeyeater and the Yellow White-eye, which really is what it says on the label. So yellow. A Striated Heron flew in and started feeding almost at our feet. We also caught a good but brief glimpse of the gorgeous Azure Kingfisher, but sadly didn’t have enough time to look further for the most sought after of the mangrove denizens, the elusive Chestnut Rail. Fortunately we also had no encounters with another less sought after resident, the Saltwater Crocodile.

Walking back to the car we were bombarded with the calls of monsoon forest species, Arafura Fantail, Grey Whistler and most impressively, a Rainbow Pitta. These jewels of the rainforest are chunky little beasts of pure dazzling colour: emerald green above, inky black below, red under the tail and a brilliant blue shoulder patch, the colour of my wife’s eyes – when they are not glazed over at me banging on about birds like Rainbow Pittas and Emerald Doves and the cute little owl-faced Double-barred Finches – that were coming and going to their rounded grass nest by the side of the road.

Remember, this place is close enough to Darwin that a number of early morning joggers were making their way along the entrance road – getting in their morning exercise before the thermostat was cranked up on nature’s sauna. But even in the heart of town, there are cool birds to be seen.

I did an interview with Lyrella Cochrane from ABC Darwin, doing a bird count in Civic Park in the heart of Darwin’s CBD. While we chatted about what it is about birds that makes them so fascinating, we were surrounded by some very cool birds. White-gaped and Rufous-throated Honeyeaters, Figbirds and more Double-barred Finches. And what is one of the coolest going around, the Orange-footed Scrubfowl. Or as I like to call them, Dinosaur Chickens. They look and sound prehistoric and would normally occur in patches of monsoon forest, yet here they were strutting about town like they owned the place. Gardeners tend to curse them as they use their extraordinary long feet to rake up mulch, seedlings and half the garden into a huge nesting mound that they use to incubate their eggs, the heat of the composting vegetation in the mound keeping the eggs developing just nicely.

It was then on to the Botanic Gardens for a photo shoot with the NT News. Dare I dream that I might fulfil a lifelong goal and knock a croc story off the front page?

I was joined by Jenny, a BirdLife Australia member who had come up from Katherine to take part in my #AussieBirdCount at the gardens. (That’s my take on it. Sure, she was also up visiting her daughter, but let’s not let that spoil a good story!) While we saw some great birds like Northern Fantail and Dusky Honeyeater, I couldn’t find us the garden’s most famous residents, a pair of Rufous Owls. After a long hot search we admitted defeat and said farewell.

But on the way out I bumped into a garden worker, the awesome Jason, and asked whether the owls had been around lately. “Come with me” he said. We walked back to the rainforest gully where I had craned my neck up virtually every tree in my futile search. En route he pointed out a Grey Goshawk nest that I had completely missed, a pure white goshawk peering over the edge of the stick nest.

Apparently, I’d asked Jason too late. The owls tend to spend the morning in a visible roost in the gully then disappear over to the Shade Gully where it is indeed shady (and the canopy too dense to see the birds) when it gets too hot. But we were in luck. The larger female Rufous Owl had already flown off to the cooler roost but the male was still there, a large hunk of bird that barely deigned to open an eye to look at us.

These birds are notably sensitive to disturbance but this pair has managed to put up with gawking twitchers and surprised visitors for many years now without abandoning their territory in the gardens. They are truly impressive beasts and one that gave me a distinct feeling of privilege of having been able to add to my Backyard Bird Counts.

And so after a couple of stops at Knuckeys Lagoons on the outskirts of Darwin, but still literally the backyards of some lucky residents, where I managed to observe Wood Sandpipers, Green Pygmy Geese and a lazy 2,000 Magpie Geese (!) it was onto the plane and off to Brisbane. My species total for nine hours of birding was 98, the last being a family of Grey-crowned Babblers playing in the gardens outside the entrance to the airport terminal. What is it about my favourite bird and NT airports!

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