Led by British wildlife presenter David Lindo, AKA The Urban Birder, a camera crew recently spent ten days in the Northern Territories of Australia shooting two mini films on the bird life. Guided by birding extraordinaire Luke Paterson of NT Bird Specialists we were in bimbo heaven as soon as we stepped off of the plane in Darwin. In birding lingo, (as most of you already know) a bird that you have never seen before is called a ‘lifer’, but with half the camera team from Spain we quickly adopted their term for a ‘lifer’ – a ‘bimbo’. And as we set off for Cooinda Lodge in Kakadu, the bimbo’s kept flying in!
As newbies to the Northern Territories everything we saw was novel – Galah’s, Sulphur-Crested Cockatoos, Red Winged Parrots – the colours that flitted across the road ahead as we made our way to our first stop in Kakadu, were mesmerising. We had been told to keep a look out for the Frilled Necked Lizard, the quintessential reptile of the Top End, but had been warned that spotting them in the dry was no easy feat. So when Luke pulled over claiming to have seen one we tried to pick it out amongst the trees ahead. In the end he had to point out the camouflaged lizard that hung suspended from a trunk on the very edge of the road, but to our untrained eyes it still looked much like a branch to us.
Our first morning was spent in the Nourlangia area watching Honeyeaters and Little Friar Birds feeding on the scarlet red flowers of the grevillea, whilst a Peregrine Falcon swooped into its nest atop Burrunggui. The striking rocky outcrop sitting impressively amongst the savannah woodland were our first views of Kakadu. From there we went in search of an endemic, the White-Lined Honey-Eater which our hawk-eyed guides quickly tracked down! As the sun reached its highest point at a nearby look-out point the Chestnut Quilled Pigeons sought shelter to feed in the shade of the rocks and we followed their lead, heading to cooler climes by the lake in Jabiru.
Along the way we spotted Partridge Pigeons by the side of the road and as we came into town the trees bowed with the weight of hundreds of Fruit Bats. As night drew in the trees were relieved of their burden as the bats left en masse to forage, only to be replaced with a white cloud of Little Corellas – a spectacular changing of the guards. And dark did not end our birding successes, with two Barking Owls perched atop a tree outside our room and around the corner a Bowerbird asleep on an exposed branch, we were amazed at how bold the wildlife was in this remote location.
Day two saw us out bright and early on the sparkling Yellow Waters and the epic sightings continued with great views of Snake-Neck Darter, White-Bellied Sea Eagles, Bar-Breasted Honeyeater, Black Bittern and of course the pre-historic crocs these rivers are famed for. Amongst the white lillies where the Jacana tended their chicks, it was easy to film some stunning footage. After lunch we headed over to Pine Creek to capture a bit of urban wildlife and on our way we came across a bimbo of exception, perhaps the rarest bird of prey in The Top End – a Red Goshawk. Sat in a tree right by the road, this magnificent bird had all the time in the world and happily posed for us as we ecstatically filmed him from the car. The day finished up in style at Pine Creek with the Hooded Parrots swooping down and drinking from a sprinkler a mere 50m from the Lazy Lizard Resort!
On our last morning in Kakadu the team split to make the most of time-lapsing the sunrise over the sensational vistas, after which we high-tailed it to Ubirr to see some of the exquisite rock paintings of the area and enjoy the Jurassic park views from the top of the walk. We spotted the Wilkins rock-wallaby, which has only recently been identified as a new species, as well as a Koal hopping around a fig tree right next to us as we filmed. After wrapping up at Ubirr we slowly made our way back to Darwin for the truly urban section of our trip, but as ever the road offered another opportunity to bird along the way and a bit of a ‚bird-off‘ started up between the two cars.
Whilst David’s car saw a Wedge-Tailed Eagle and Rose-Crowned Fruit Dove, the second car (which held the wildlife camera crew) spotted Rainbow Pitta and Brolgas, which made it very hard to decide who the overall winners were! With light left in the day we made a quick stop off at Fogg-dam (where fore mentioned rainbow pitta and brolgas were seen) for a walk around the boardwalk, dodging the awesome golden orb spiders and their huge webs, before having to turn back where a fire had obliterated a section of the boardwalk. That evening we arrived at the Ramada Suites Zen ready to start shooting the Darwin section of our film.
We had barely set foot outside the next morning when we saw two Rainbow Bee-Eaters settled on a TV aerial, flitting off every now and then to hunt – the perfect urban vision to start the day! At the market down at Nightcliffe the trees hummed with Big Birds, Little Friar Birds, White-Gaped Honeyeaters whilst larger shadows passed over us, Brahmini Kites surveying the goings on from above. From the market to the jetty it was a veritable birding bonanza, but it was a humble Magpie Lark that caught our eye.
Whilst watching the bold Double-Barred Finches skirting the Silver Gulls at a leaking tap, we noticed a Magpie Lark collecting mud from a corner of the puddle. On its second visit we followed it to where it was making its nest above the Nightcliffe jetty car park (losing the majority of its beak contents onto the parked cars beneath). It was the perfect sequence shot but to make it truly urban we recruited the help of two young Darwinians to walk through the frame whilst the bird was collecting its nest materials. Despite the bird choosing then to take its lunch break, the girls enthusiastically took up the challenge and helped us out until the perfect shot was taken.
After that the variety of birds just got more and more astonishing – Red-Tailed Black Cockatoos hanging from lamp posts, Ibis roaming the gardens of the Ski Club, a majestic Rufous Owl asleep in the trees at the Botanical Gardens, an Osprey with fish for its chicks in the nest on the transmitting tower in The Gardens (being mobbed by a Hobby as it came in – perhaps in the hope that the Osprey would drop its dinner), Tawny Frogmouth nestled away on the Esplanade – in just one day Darwin revealed a riot of bird life! And the grand finale, which we watched grow from a tiny pre-roost on the Esplanade to an explosion of feathers flooding the sky with colours and calls, before thousands of the birds finally settled in the very heart of Darwin – the magnificent Rainbow Lorikeet roost on Mitchell Street.
We were so taken by the unique spectacle that we headed back before dawn the next morning to see the effect of such numbers leaving, and we were amazed to find the council out power-washing the sidewalk below the roost – a very impressive dedication to this epic natural marvel. After the sun had risen we headed over to Cullen Bay to film a Striated Heron and Grey-Tailed Tattler who were picking through the water’s treasures as the locals from across the bay got off the ferry.
We stopped at Mindil beach and saw Black Butcher Birds, before heading to Jingili water gardens where we spotted Azure Kingfisher, Grey Goshawk and Red-Headed Honeyeater – for many of us it was a never-ending glut of bimbos! Pre-dawn the following day we went to East Point to time-lapse the sunrise over the CBD. Our day’s mission was to shoot waders so after the sun had risen we headed over to Lee Point and walked along the beach to Buffalo Creek where a plethora of birds waited for us – Sooty Oystercatchers, Red-Capped Plover, Little Tern and Caspian Tern.
Each day in Darwin we were met with surprises and not only from our feathered friends. On our eighth day whilst filming Orange-Footed Scrubfowl at Frog’s Hollow we met some indigenous people from East Arnhem. Whilst we filmed they told us about the relevance of the scrubfowl to their clan and how they would dance and sing in tribute to them. It was fascinating to learn the relevance of these creatures in the local culture. Our day there out progressed as usual with never-ending sightings – Stone Curlew down at Nightcliff Bay (where we even fitted in some rock pooling, finding mantis shrimp and sea cucumbers), to the dump where we spotted Kites, Pied Herons and Ibise, before wrapping the day up with a proper Aussie BBQ!
Our final day in Darwin we spent cleaning up – finishing off shots and chasing birds we had missed. We began with Rainbow Pitta which we got fantastic footage of down at East Point thanks to the unbelievable tracking skills of Luke Paterson. Next to Bowerbirds at Bay View and finishing off with another spectacular roost site – Little Corellas on the milkwood along Berrimah, a stunning spectacle to round the trip up with!
Despite shooting urban wildlife around the world, the birding in these parts was particularly impressive and what we witnessed during the ten days we spent in Darwin and Kakadu proved that the Top End boasts some of the best and most accessible sites any of us had ever before experienced – for me especially, it has to be the most underrated location I have ever visited!
Photos by Luke Massey