Iron Range Kutini-Payamu Jan 2021
It was with some excitement that we boarded Sky Trans from Cairns to Kutini-Payamu (Iron Range). Kutini means cassowary and Payamu means rainbow serpent. Having just spent a week travelling from Cairns via Daintree and Rossville up to Cooktown and back via Lakeland, Mt Carbine, Atherton and Yungaburra.
In Early Jan 2021 Alan Stringer and I had planned to drive from Melbourne to Parkes NSW, to meet our travelling companion Robert Shore who would put us up for the night before heading off on our trip in his Toyota Hilux. The plan was to drive to Iron Range FNQ. Our plans were scuttled at the last minute when NSW went into COVID lockdown meaning we couldn’t risk traveling through NSW into QLD. Alan and I had credits with Qantas from a previously cancelled trip to PNG in April 2020, out flight credits were due to expire in Jan 2021 so we decided to use them and booked flights to Cairns, while Robert Shore made a dash for the QLD border to meet us in Cairns on the 6th Jan 2021.
During our week traveling to Cooktown and back we managed to organise our trip to Iron Range. In summer the wet season (Nov – April) can see the closure of roads into Iron Range due to flooding, as was the case in Jan 2021, so our decision was made for us, we would have to fly in.
The Sky Trans flight to Lockhart River takes about two hours from Cairns, the plane is a 36 seat Dehavilland Canada Dash 8. Upon arrival we find a small airport with several outbuildings and a small group of travellers waiting to board. The first bird to look out for was a Little Curlew recently sighted along side the runway, it didn’t take too long to get onto it with the bins and the first tick for Iron range. Also on list was Fawn-breasted Bowerbird know to hang around the Airport, unfortunately seeing it would have to wait until later on during our stay.
Having picked up our hire car (a Mitsubishi Duel Cab) at the airport, our first destination was the excellent GreenHoose accommodation, which would become our base for the next seven days. GreenHoose is approximately 5km from the airport, and nestled in the rain forest is a series of cabins and a central facility with Kitchen and bathroom amenities. For more info see: https://www.greenhoose.com.au
Days of heavy rainfall was quite evident as we made the short drive from the airport along Lockhart River Rd to GreenHoose, checked in, we did a little exploring the forest around the accommodation and the next door ranger station, generally the birding seemed pretty quiet. That evening we enjoyed an excellent dinner cooked by the GreenHoose chefs and in the great company of a Great Northern Tours group led by David Mead. After dinner we decided to get straight into spotlighting mode and headed off to Portland Road to see what we could find.
At the airport we met an outbound Matt Wright and Jasmine Zeleny who tipped us off about how to find the Green Tree Pythons, armed with that information we headed off after dinner along Portland Roads, we soon found another pair of birders who where already onto one, we stopped briefly for look-see and then moved on to look for more.
We decided to drive the 30km to Chilli Beach. Along the road to Chilli Beach the landscape goes through several transformations from dense rainforest, through heathland to more open woodland as you get closer to Chilli Beach. With torches pointing out the windows Alan saw some eye-shine in the scrub, we stopped and went back for look, low and behold a Large-tailed Nightjar perched at eye level on a branch.
Not too far from Chilli Beach we got onto a pair Papuan Frogmouths, which provided great views. On the return journey to GreenHoose we were forced to come to a halt suddenly as a huge Amethyst Python was stretched nearly the full width of the road in front of us. Around Cooks Hut we saw more Green Pythons and had Marbled Frogmouth calling nearby, only managed a distant photo of the latter.
Papuan Frogmouth Marbled Frogmouth
Some of the frogs seen during our spotlighting along Portland Roads include: White Lipped Tree frog, Wood froglet and Tawny froglet
Portland Road from Claudie River to Chilli Beach (30km) offers up a range of landscapes, flora and fauna.
We heard on the grapevine that the Palm cockatoos had been observed feeding on beach almonds down at Quintell Beach over the past few days. On day two we got up before dawn and headed down to the beach, as the sun came up the water was like glass. After a little while we heard the calls of Palm Cockatoos and then gradually they appeared in nearby trees, we spent a good couple of hours observing them from a distance and then a bit closer, an amazing experience!
We stopped at the Lockhart waste water treatment plant on the way back from Quintell beach and picked up Spotted Whistling & Wandering Whistling ducks, Common Sandpipers and a Pacific Koel being the highlights.
Over the following days we got to explore many great locations including the Quintell Beach, Lockhart River Waste Water Treatment Plant, Mango Farm Dam, Portland Roads, Cooks Hut Campground, Rainforest Campground, Old Coen Rd Walking track, Claudie River Crossing.
In the forest around GreenHoose you could hear many different birds calling, such as the Northern Scrub Robin, Buff-breasted Paradise Kingfisher, Papuan Pitta, Yellow-billed Kingfisher and the Black-eared Catbird. I wandered down into the forest to see what I could find and quickly got onto to the Northern Scrub Robin, continuous calls of the Yellow-billed Kingfisher filled the forest canopy but could not be sighted. At the front entrance a Little Bronze Cuckoo provided excellent views and Lovely Fairywren around the back of the GreenHoose. Whilst watching the fairy wrens I notice something moving around in the canopy beside me, a Trumpet Manucode another lifer!
Spotted Cuscus can be found around GreenHoose, we saw one on a daily basis but never really good views until I visited next door ranger station one day and was pleasantly surprised.
Along Portland Road to the south about 1km from the Lockhart River Rd intersection is the Claudie River crossing, a great birding spot, here we had great views of Black-winged Monarch, Chestnut Breasted Cuckoo, Buff-breasted Paradise Kingfisher and Eclectus Parrot flyovers. A good spot to stand is on the bridge and just watch the bird activity.
Mango Farm Dam is less than a kilometre down Lockhart River Missionary Rd, behind an old Mango Farm the dam provides a haven for a multitude of birdlife, a place I could easily have spent much more time exploring. Some of the highlights here were Yellow-billed Kingfishers, Lemon-bellied & Shining Flycatchers, Frill-necked Monarch and a rare (for the location) Banded Honeyeater among many other birds.
One of the much sought after endemic birds in Iron Range is the White-streaked Honeyeater found in the heathland along Portland Rd toward Chilli Beach, we went after it and found a more than obliging bird right beside the road, a great looking honeyeater.
We were well into our trip and still hadn’t sighted a Papuan Pitta, whilst heard calling all around GreenHooose we could just not get onto one. On the Sunday morning Alan and I drove down to Claudie River Crossing where we aimed to just do some general birding, that’s when I had the idea to take my tripod stool and sit in the forest a see if I could get onto a Papuan Pitta. I set my self up in dark forest about 50m from the road, I waited and waited, perhaps about an hour, occasionally using payback, then from behind a log appeared a Pitta moving toward me feeding in the leaf litter. Holding my breath I managed a couple of photos and was pretty elated with the experience. I went back and found Alan and told what I’d seen, he then went in and got onto them too! Robert Shore in the meantime had stayed back GreenHoose to try looking for them there, we went back and told him. We took Robert back to the spot an got onto them too, so we were all pretty happy after that experience!
Eastern Reef Egret
Lesser Crested Tern