KAKADU NATIONAL PARK, YELLOW WATERS, PINE CREEK & Surrounding Areas - Nov. 21st & 22nd...
Another early morning down under! At this time of year the sun rises very early here, before 5:00 AM. It gets a little confusing as Northern Territory has an odd system of time zones, instead of being an hour earlier to the east and an hour later to the west, it's 1/2 hour so when it's 5:30 in Darwin it's 6:00 in Cairns for example... Anyway, we got up early and took the shuttle bus from our cabins to the Yellow Waters boat tour that runs out of Cooinda. The Yellow Waters billabong is actually part of a much larger system of rivers and waterways that make their way eventually to the ocean about 100 miles away. This system is massive and creates habitat for hundreds of Australian animals. Here's a view of typical habitat along the waterways.
Yellow Waters Billabong, Kakadu National Park
This immature Jabiru or Black-necked Stork found an interesting prize in the mud... a discarded beer can... This should be the poster for some environmental campaign to wipe out littering, we were only glad that the Jabiru eventually discarded the beer can without trying to ingest it!
Juv. Black-necked Stork
Yellow Waters is home to an ENOURMOUS amount of Salt-water Crocodiles. These range in sizes up to and perhaps in excess of 20 feet in length! The biggest one we saw on our tours was only about 4 to 4.5 meters but that's still nearly 15 feet long! They are quite amazing animals and very well fed in this area. As the dry season takes grip at the end of the Australian winter the water starts to dry up and the deeper areas become sort of like collecting pools for the aquatic animals that normally roam freely throughout the area. The crocodiles take full advantage of these situations gorging themselves on the food that collects in these billabongs as the water dries up.
This is one of three Ibis species that we saw on the trip, this one is the Glossy Ibis.
Little Pied Cormorants were common in areas where there was adequate water to sustain them, they are fishing birds like their American Cormorant cousins.
Little Pied Cormorant
The most common raptor that we encountered was the Whistling Kite, they were at every turn! A great sign that there is more than adequate food supply is the amount of (healthy) predators that you see in an area. This area is loaded with predators...
This was another Honeyeater that we were able to photograph, this one is called the Bar-breasted Honeyeater, aptly named. It makes its nest over water on a hanging branch with the male and female sharing building duties. Here they are getting close to completion.
One of the coolest birds we saw during the morning was the spectacular White-bellied Sea-eagle. These are very large birds, the second largest eagle in Australia next to the Wedge-tailed eagle and quite impressive to see.
We saw this pair of Royal Spoonbills flying over the billabong on their way to parts unknown.
Rufous Night-Herons were quite common along the water course.
Rufous (Nankeen) Night-Heron
Here's a close-up of a Green Pygmy-goose showing some of the striking coloration and patterns.
Australian Darters like the one pictured here are unique among the wading-type birds in that they do not have the same oil glands that keep their feathers from getting wet when they go in the water. To adapt to this physical limitation, they spend quite a bit of time drying their wings by spreading them out as pictured below, they sort of look like they are flashing you as they sit on a branch with arms outstretched...
A large, male Jabiru watches us as we float by. I have found that it's often easier to approach animals from a boat then from the shore. Not sure why this is really I am sure there is some sort of animal psychology behind it, some risk assessment that is in play.
Black-necked Stork (Jabiru)
Black-necked Stork (Jabiru)
Australian White Pelicans were also quite numerous along the shoreline, lending credence to the assumption that there is a large biomass of food in the area.
Australian White Pelican
This is one of the aforementioned Egrets, the Little Egret seen foraging along the shoreline.
Little Pied Cormorant
One of the highlights of the day was getting up close with this striking Azure Kingfisher that allowed us to approach very closely before taking off. This Kingfisher is more in alignment with the Kingfishers of the Americans being associated with waterways.
A family of White-breasted Woodswallows sat nearby watching the folks on the boat shooting pictures of the Kingfisher. They were almost directly overhead while all of the commotion regarding the Kingfisher was going on.
As stated earlier, Rufous or "Nankeen" Night-Herons were quite numerous, all tending to be sitting in shadier areas along the watercourse, waiting for nightfall when they come into action.
We were fortunate to observe two different species of Whistling Duck, so named because of their whistling call and the sound that their wings make while in flight. These are Wandering Whistling Ducks.
Wandering Whistling Duck
Another Pied Heron looks on.
Note the feet on this Comb-crested Jacana. The large surface area that they cover allows them to distribute their weight evenly over a large surface and enables them to walk on delicate structures such as these lily pads.
Here's another habitat shot of the area. If you look closely in the middle of the picture you will see a large white barked tree, slightly to the right of center. At the top of the tree you can make our a large, White-bellied Sea-eagle nest.
Yellow Waters, Northern Territory
More Jacana shots showing it's habit of walking on water...
A close-up shot of a Green Pygmy-goose. Note the claws on the feet, allowing it to climb up and perch on branches.
A Purple Swamphen, closely related to the Moorhens in the U.S.
Wandering Whistling Duck
We came across this young Sea-eagle foraging along the banks. There was a rather large, dead fish just in the water which seemed to be getting all of it's attention. Two adult Sea-eagles were perched not far away, I assume watching their youngster, one of them called out as we approached from the water but it didn't seem to have any effect on this youngster.
I assume this is mom and dad...
Here's the second species of Whistling Duck and also the last photographs from the morning trip. These are Plumed Whistling Ducks, again quite striking animals...
Plumed Whistling Duck
After getting back to dock and taking the bus back to our hotel/cabins, we grabbed a quick breakfast and decided to drive up toward Jim Jim Falls. The day was already getting quite warm with humidity seeming to climb by the hour and once we were on our way along the dirt road leading to the 4WD only path that takes you to the falls the temperature really started to climb. An hour after leaving Yellow Waters the temperature from the car thermometer was consistently between 36 and 37C, the hottest it would be the entire trip (that's 96-98F). We stopped at many places along the way, anywhere were there was interesting looking habitat, a water hole (billabong) or different sort of topology but all we managed to scare up was this Bar-breasted Honeyeater family building a nest over a small creek.
As we approached the 4WD section of the road the terrain changed quite rapidly with steep, limestone cliffs jutting out of nowhere. Kakadu is more of an escarpment than any sort of mountains, the land seems to have been carved away leaving these sort of structures behind, ancient exposed rocks. We searched high and low for reptiles as well but other than the constant companionship of Gilbert's Dragons and the constant drone of millions of Cicadas, the land was still. As afternoon started to set in, the skies started to grow dark on the horizon and I could tell by 2:00 PM that we were going to get some stormy weather. We decided to turn around and head back toward camp before there was any significant rain and still intended on going back out again on the late afternoon excursion unless it was canceled.
Near Jim Jim Falls, Kakadu N.P., Northern Territory
By the time we got back to the hotel, the skies were very threatening and you could see a massive cell developing not too far in the distance. Occasional bolts of lightning could be seen in the distance going from cloud to cloud as the wind picked up occasionally however the storm appeared to be slow moving, at least for the moment. We checked in and found that the boat was still leaving despite the threatening weather so we grabbed our camera gear, backpacks and ponchos and off we went!
These tours are conducted on small, pontoon-like boats with about room for 40-50 people and include a guide which hopefully is knowledgeable enough about the area to please most folks and satisfy their curiosity and answer questions. The gentleman we had in the morning was quite adequate, knowledgable about the wildlife and seemed adept at finding it however that's about as far as he went. Our guide in the afternoon was quite a different story, he was an Australian Aboriginal, meaning that he was of mixed decent, half Aborigone and half Australian and he had a scientific background to boot having worked in crocodile research for 9 years before becoming a nature guide. The tour was wonderful! Not only did he find wildlife but he went to great details to describe the ecosystem, interaction of various animals and their environment and also gave the aboriginal point of view to each story or fact he would tell. For instance, he talked not only about the Magpie Goose, how it lived and bred, it's movements, etc. but also talked about how it fit into aboriginal life, how they ate it, how they trapped it, etc. And if something was taboo in their culture he'd describe that too. A great deal of passion went into his presentation. I don't recall his name unfortunately but he was just great!
We ran into another Azure Kingfisher in the afternoon, this one was not quite as cooperative, in fact, most of the animals seemed to be a bit addled, probably because of the fast approaching storm that I kept watching out of the corner of my eye... Lets see, being on a small boat made of metal in a severe lightning storm... perhaps not the best place to be... I guess it added to the excitement and actually for the time being it appeared that the storm had taken a course parallel to our area but it was MASSIVE!
We saw several additional Sea-eagles in the afternoon and we explored a completely different area than we had earlier in the day, they were quite common along the billabong.
White-bellied Sea Eagle
This was the largest croc encountered during either trip, he was estimated to be about 4 to 4.5 meters...
This little Black-fronted Dotterel was a different bird than we had seen in the morning...
Whiskered Terns were also quite numerous in the afternoon, flying low over the weeds.
Not sure if these were the same Royal Spoonbills that we had seen fly over in the morning but we found a couple of them on the ground and were able to get a few shots before they took off.
Another new bird, not seen in the morning was this Australian Pratincole.
Stilt and Glossy Ibis hanging out with a Jacana...
Glossy Ibis, Black-winged Stilt & Comb-crested Jacana
White-bellied Sea Eagle
Here's a view of the gathering storm from the boat, lightning was consistently cranking out of the storm by now but it seemed to have gotten father away...
Thunderheads moving in...
I took this shot which was supposed to show the great diversity in the area however I got a bit more blur that I wanted in the background... You can however make out the Jabiru of course, Whistling Ducks, Egrets, Pygmy Goose, a Lapwing, Magpies Geese and in the distance there are actually several Brolga...
Jabiru, Whistling Ducks, Pygmy-goose, Egrets, etc. at Yellow Waters
As the tour proceeded the storm changed direction and in a matter of a few minutes it was quite evident that we were going to get slammed... The wind picked up and the skies darkened, the boat operator decided that it was time to high-tail it to the dock which was a good thing, by the time we got there there was a 2 foot chop on the water and the wind was howling. A few drops of rain and a heck of a lot of lightning accentuated the situation. We made it back to the bus drop off at the hotel just as the skies opened up and it poured! We were treated to 3 hours of natures fury as it just came down in buckets with lightning constantly lighting up the surroundings. By 8:30 or so however the storm had moved on and you could start to see stars in between broken clouds.
We decided to take a quick run up the road to see what the rain activity may have stirred up and we were greeted by a nice smattering of amphibians. You could here myriads of frogs calling in the distance and there were numerous frogs on the roadway. Quite prevalent were Striped Rocket Frogs which seemed to be everywhere. These guys are the champions of the jumping competition in my book, typically it's two, perhaps three leaps and they are across the road. They were by far the most commonly encountered amphibian.
Striped Rocket Frog - Litoria nasuta
This tiny frog is one I have previously encountered in Tropical North Queensland, I spotted this tiny tree frog jumping across the road and was lucky enough to grab it before it got into the brush. This is called a Northern Dwarf Tree Frog.
Northern Dwarf Treefrog - Litoria bicolor
These large frogs were the next most commonly encountered, they are called Giant Frogs and were fairly numerous, I think I found six or seven of them in an hour. They also are quite variable in coloration ranging from quite lightly colored ones to dark.
Giant Frog - Cyclorana australis
This little guy is called a Long-footed Frog and was a one-off, again just a tiny little frog on the asphalt that looked much like a small rock. Easy to see why so many are slaughtered...
Also, FYI and not pictured here as I have posted several other photos in different reports was unfortunately the Cane Toad. They were not as numerous as in Queensland but sadly, they have arrived in numbers in the Northern Territory.
Long-footed Frog- Cyclorana longipes
We also were pleased to see our old friend the Green or White's Treefrog, finding several of them on the road.
Green Treefrog - Litoria caerulea
We had had a long day, Lynn was fast asleep in the car and I was getting tired so I cut it short and headed back to the hotel, in about an hour I had found about 30 or so frogs which was a cool diversion for me anyway...
This skink was foraging around our front door the next morning...
Two-spined Rainbow Skink - Carlia amax
This is the reason that Cane Toads are such a problem... they multiply like, well like toads! The problem is predation, typically in a scene like this you'd probably see a bunch of Egrets or snakes taking their toll, the problem is that even baby Cane Toads are deadly, their strong alkaloid poison is deadly to most Australian species.
Cane Toad - Bufo marinus
This is a shot from along one small edge of a pond that was about 6 feet in diameter. The entire embankment around the pond was solid Cane Toads and there were several ponds in the area, all the same. The invasion has begun! The only thing that MAY save the Northern Territory from the same fate as Queensland is the dry season. Cane Toads need moisture to survive and cannot live for very long without water, most research I have seen says 3-4 days of dry and they are desiccated. This may mean that the Cane Toads will be relegated to areas with more or less permanent water and limited in their distribution in NT.
Billions and billions and billions...
Typical habitat along the road going from Cooinda to Pine Creek in Kakadu area.
We ran into this Mistletoebird while stopping to take a picture of a giant termite mound, these specialists are very tiny, very active and very much associated with, as their name implies, Mistletoe.
We flushed a few Red-tailed Cockatoos at another stop and got a nice shot of them in flight.
Red-tailed Black Cockatoo
Another habitat shot...
This is how one of the giant termite mounds gets started...
We stopped to stretch our legs along a small stream that crossed the road and of course, there were a few things of interest there, in fact, I got two new life birds in a matter of a minute or two, the first was this Varied Triller...
Followed almost immediately by this little flycatcher that was very receptive to my impromptu photo shoot, returning several times to the same perch in between his fly catching activities...
We stopped in this area to see if we could get lucky and find the Hooded Parrot that lives in this region but we had no luck. This is a shot looking back over the vast expanses of Kakadu.
At another rest stop we came across this Two-lined Dragon foraging among the debris of a dry creek bed.
Two-lined Dragon - Diporiphora bilineata
Every trip I have at least one place where you say, I wish I had known more about this or I wish I had more time to spend there... On this trip one of those places was Pine Creek. I didn't do enough research ahead of time on this area and from a birding perspective I blew it as being there are the right time of day could have paid big bonuses in terms of what we could have photographed. Two "target" species, the Hooded Parrot and Gouldian Finch are both readily seen in this area, in the morning... unfortunately we visited Pine Creek in the afternoon. It was very "birdy" anyway and we were able to get some great shots of a few different species before turning northward and beginning the long trek back toward Darwin. These Blue-faced Honeyeaters (females have green faces, makes have blue) were abundant and easy to photograph.
Blue-faced Honeyeater (Female)
We chased down a flock of Red-winged Parrots that were making their way around town and were able to snap a few good shots of them as well.
Red-winged Parrots in flight
Mixed in with the flock of Parrots were several Grey-crowned Babblers as seen here.
And of course what town would be complete without Sulphur-crested Cockatoos!
With the sun starting to get low on the horizon and a three hour drive in front of us we headed back toward Darwin to get a bit of rest before venturing back into the field the next day...
CLICK HERE TO GO TO PART 4 - LITCHFIELD STATE PARK - Nov. 23rd...