Critter-spotting itinerary for the Wet Tropics and Cape York Peninsula
The bar was set high when my brother announced that he was taking my Dad on a diving trip to Timor-Leste for his 60th birthday. How was I going to rival that?
“Hey Dad,” I asked, “wanna go to birdwatching on Cape York?” He was keen.
After consulting a bunch of Far North Queensland (FNQ)/ Cape York Peninsula (CYP) experts*, I crafted an itinerary to maximise wildlife spotting but minimised driving. We went in the early wet season: enough rain that the critters are starting to be active and the hordes of tourists have left; but not so much rain that we’d get stuck between rivers.
Day 1: Cairns - Lake Eacham
We flew to Cairns and met in the airport. The hire company had given us a Subaru forester which was probably not ideal, but in the end it did the job. We borrowed a few extra bits of camping gear from colleagues, stocked up our food supplies, and headed up the range to Kuranda for lunch. From there we swung past the Curtain Fig near Yungaburra, where we were entertained by Red-legged pademelons (but sadly no tree kangaroos just yet).
We stayed at Chambers Wildlife Rainforest Lodge, which was fantastic. The grounds there are lovely, and Musky rat-kangaroos (Hypsiprymnodon moschatus, or Hypsis for short) were hopping around, we saw some great birds and enjoyed the little forest trail. At night they put food out for the local wildlife and we had amazing views of a Striped possum, a Sugar glider, a Long-nosed bandicoot and while we were there an Echidna scuffled by. We found some Northern leaf-tail geckoes (Saltuarius cornutus) on trees, and found a Water rat and a few Northern barred frogs (Mixophyes schevilli) down on the creek.
Day 2: Lake Eacham - Curtain Fig – Mt Hypipamee - Malanda
The birds were going nuts at the Chambers Lodge, and Dad saw a spotted catbird attack a leaf tail gecko. We dragged ourselves away from the action and headed to the actual Lake Eacham, and wandered around the lake track. We found two Boyd’s forest dragons, and several Hypsis bounding about. The Atherton and Large-billed scrubwrens were nattering away challenging our bird ID skills.
We had lunch in Malanda, then headed to the world’s most reliable spot to see Lumholtz tree kangaroos – the Nerada Tea Rooms! In the heat of the afternoon Dad spotted two in the fork of a tree, who apart from staring curiously down at us, didn’t do much. So we went for a cup of tea (of course). Closer to the tea house other TK spotters found three so we saw a whopping five TKs for the price of tea and scones.
That night we went spotlighting at Mt Hypipamee. To my astonishment, the first thing we saw there was a Striped possum! These things are supposed to be hard to find! Dad spotted a few Green ringtails and there were small and medium bats zooming up and down the path. We stayed at my friend Cath’s place in Malanda that night. The mammals were exciting and poor Dad had a guide (i.e. me) who was a bit lagging on the frog ID, so not all the frogs we saw this trip I’ll detail here as the IDs could be sketchy. So take it for granted here that we saw frogs pretty much every night, and they were great even if I couldn’t identify them! Lots of Litoria jungguy, we could be sure about those.
Day 3: Malanda - Granite Gorge - Davies Creek
We drove from Malanda to Mareeba, and headed out to Granite Gorge so Dad could see the Mareeba rock-wallabies. There was a nice little trail through the gorge and we also saw yellow honeyeaters and a cicadabird; and on our way back to Mareeba we found a flock of Brolgas and Sarus crane on a field. We then drove to Davies Creek, and camped at Upper Davies Creek. Campsite 5 was recommended to us as the best, but it was taken so we stayed at Campsite 3, which was also lovely. We saw Pretty-faced wallabies as we drove in, and later that night Sugar gliders and a Scrub python down by the creek hunting frogs – there numerous Litoria jungguy around the creek, and Litoria nannotis at the fast flowing parts.
Day 4: Davies Creek
We walked the Turtle Rock circuit trail that left straight from our campsite. It was beautiful but pretty toasty heading up the hill. That evening we went birding and then spotlighting in the rainforest at the far end of the park, and we saw Long-nosed bandicoot, Northern brown bandicoot and a scruffy looking Chameleon gecko (Carpodactylus laevis).
Day 5: Davies Creek - Mt Lewis
We had an early morning bird walk in the rainforest part of the park, then packed up camp and drove into Mareeba. Dad’s camping mat had a leak so we did the tour of all the camping shop options in town. This took about 15 minutes. The best of the few options was an over-priced self-inflating mattress that fell apart as soon as Dad tried to use it – moral here is do not rely on Mareeba for your camping gear! We went for a coffee at the famous Mareeba Coffee Works, stocked up on fresh produce and ice for the esky, and headed to Mt Molloy for lunch. From here we drove up to Mt Lewis. We parked in the Australian Wildlife Conservancy property on the top of Mt Lewis, and walked the rainforest trail down to the dam, and then along the main road. We found Long nosed Bandicoots, Red-legged Pademelons, Green ringtails, a White-tailed rat, and a much shiner Carpodactylus laevis.
Day 6: Mt Lewis - Artemis Station
No Blue-faced parrot-finches yet, so we walked the Mt Lewis trail out to the dam again, and out to the telecommunications tower at the end of the track. The Tooth-billed bowerbirds were making quite a racket, and we found a display stage near the tower. Only a few hundred metres away, we found a bower of the Golden bowerbird on the other side of the track. A few Hypsis bounded about, and we scared a Red-bellied black-snake sunning on the trail. Searching for Gnyptoscincus queenslandiae we found an Austrochaperina robusta under a small log.
We headed north up the Peninsula Development Road, and stocked up on fuel, water and chocolate at Laura. We drove to Artemis Station, famous for their little population of Golden-shouldered parrots (GSPs). Artemis owner Sue Shephard met us as we arrived, and showed us to the camping ground that they’d set up for the nutter birders (like us) coming for the GSPs. They even had an amenities block, and we were both pretty excited to have the first shower for a few days.
We found the GSPs at the feed station that Sue and Tom Shephard have put out for them. I was blown away by the brilliant colours, though admittedly a little sad that my first ever view was at a feeder. That evening we headed down to the nearest farm dam, and watched hundreds of Little red flying foxes come skimming in for the water. The frogs were going nuts there too, we found Litoria rothii, Litoria inermis, Platyplectrum ornatum, a small Crinia...? and others we struggled to identify.
Day 7: Artemis Station - Kutini-Payamu (Iron Range) National Park
The next morning we returned to the dam with our cups of tea in hand and watched the GSPs come into drink. That was quite amazing! It was great watching the pygmy geese, jacanas and other birds congregating at the dam. We also found a pair of Black-backed butcherbirds on a nest.
We drove north to Coen, refuelled the car (unleaded) and ourselves (chips and cold drinks), and drove into Kutini-Payamu (Iron Range) National Park. Sadly, the rainforest had been severely hit by Cyclone Trevor in March, so the canopy I remembered was largely missing. But the birds were going crazy, and it was so exciting to see all the fauna that we share with our New Guinea neighbours. So many species are either not found south of Cape York, or have a Cape York subspecies and are a different colour or have a different call variation. That night down by the nearest creek the Papuarana daemeli were making a racket laughing their heads off, and we also found Limnodynastes convesciusulus. We found several Common spotted cuscus along the Old Coen Road walking track, and yet another Striped possum! In the trees we found Giant tree geckos (Pseudothecadactylus australis), some unidentified little rat, and the impressively large Litoria infrafrenata. We camped at the Rainforest Camp, which appeared to be the nicest of the three camping areas available.
Day 8: Kutini-Payamu (Iron Range) National Park - Portland Roads -Chilli Beach
On our morning bird walk along the Old Coen Road we were treated to a magnificent view of a Palm cockatoo on the top of a stump, throwing its head back and whistling for us.
We drove out to Portland Roads, where I got a brief glimpse of what I think was a frigate bird (unconfirmed). We headed down to Chilli Beach, hoping to see the Metallic starling murmuration in the evening. Unfortunately it was a no-show, presumably because the trees must not have survived the cyclone out on the island. That evening we saw another Common spotted cuscus – before the sun had even set! So we had amazing views. Spotlighting at Chilli Beach we saw more Giant tree geckoes, Limnodynastes terrereginae and P. Ornatum – but sadly no Green pythons. Driving home we found an Echidna wandering along the road, and two Papuan frogmouths flying by.
Day 9: Kutini-Payamu (Iron Range) National Park
We were on a serious hunt for Yellow-billed kingfisher by this stage, as we could hear them everywhere but no sight of them. Down by the creek we were treated to the Little kingfisher though, and had several amazing views of Buff-breasted paradise kingfisher. That afternoon we visited the little walking trail behind the nearby Green Hoose where apparently Cassowaries hang out but we didn’t see any. That night we went for a spotlight at the Cook’s Hut campground and had brilliant views of another Common spotted cuscus, and Giant tree geckos. Driving along the roads we found a Water python (Liasis fuscus) and Brown tree snake (Boiga irregularis). We searched the creeks but still no Green pythons.
Day 10: Kutini-Payamu (Iron Range) National Park - BTF spot
We wandered down to a new spot on the creek and were treated to a pair of Eclectus parrots on the nest – the female flew out of the tree hollow and the male flew in for a change over. It was great to get such amazing views. Still no Yellow-billed kingfisher or Red-bellied pitta.
We had permission to visit a site near Coen that we were told was good habitat for the Northern Black-throated finch, so we drove in there and parked near the creek. There were lots of flowering and fruiting trees so the frugivorous birds were going nuts even in the heat of the day – lots of Silver-crowned friarbirds, Trumpet manucodes, Yellow orioles and others. We wandered the savanna looking for finches and Dad found some Double-barred finches which were a nice consolation prize, if not my favourite BTF. That evening the frogs on the creek were in abundance, we found Litoria nasuta, L. latopalmata, L. rothii, L. inermis, Papurana daemeli and Platyplectrum ornatum. A flash of dark grey snake zoomed past in the leaf litter which we think was the Slaty grey snake. Flying foxes – probably Pteropus alecto – were in the trees above, and a Papuan nightjar visited the camp.
Day 11: BTF spot - Black Mountain
A Palm cockatoo flew over our camp early in the morning and landed on a tall riparian tree, gave a little display before heading on its way. No Black-throated finch unfortunately. We made our way south down the Peninsula Development Road, and took a small diversion east from the Musgrave roadhouse road to a spot we’d been told was good to find RED GOSHAWK! A lifer for us both.
We continued south and headed towards Black Mountain. We stayed at the Lion’s Den Hotel, and in the fading light headed out to the mountain itself. We were treated to views of the endemic Black Mountain skink (Carlia scirtetis) scurrying across the boulders – there were plenty of them, even at dusk, on the warm boulders. As it got dark they went in and out came the endemic Black Mountain gecko (Nactus galgajuga). Unfortunately it was quite dry and we didn’t find any Black Mountain boulderfrogs. We did find the Cooktown Ring-tailed Gecko (Cyrtodactylus tuberculatus) on the vegetation above the boulders which were quite spectacular.
Day 12: Black Mountain - Mt Lewis
Dad was quite fond of the higher-elevation rainforest which was a more respectable temperature than the lowland, so we decided to spend our last night on the road back at Mt Lewis. On our way there, we stopped at Abattoir swamp bird hide. We watched the brown-backed honeyeaters cavorting – and even found a nest right beside the boardwalk. In the hide itself a Brown tree snake was curled up just under the roof.
When we reached Mt Lewis we drove through the National Park down to the ‘Three ways’ creek crossing. Rock hopping down the creek we found the Mount Lewis spiny crayfish (Euastacus fleckeri) hiding in the shadows in the deeper pools. Driving along a Varanus scalaris scampered across the road.
Back up the top we wandered our favourite trail to the dam to the deep “Warrp” of the Mixophyes and watched Hypsis skitter across the path. We loved to watch the dam and the birds skimming the surface … hang on … is that a Platypus?? We hadn’t expected to find a pair of Platypus in the dam on our third visit! They didn’t appear to be shy and we had incredible views – one even come to feed in the mud just metres away from where we were sitting. Spotlighting back along the trail that night we found several Daintree River Ringtails, and a mysterious rat up a tree that may have been Pogomys. We found more Northern long nosed bandicoots, Northern Leaf tail geckoes, White tailed rats, and Dad saw three Northern bettongs (I missed out unfortunately). The mammals were out and about before the moon rose, and we saw a small mammal tucked in the foliage quite high, which could have been a Long-tailed pygmy possum, but we didn’t get a clear enough view to confirm. Wandering back along the road we found yet another Striped possum (seriously those things are everywhere!), found Spectacled flying fox feeding in the trees above, and another Green ringtail. Dad declared it one of the best spotlighting nights he’d had.
Day 13: Mt Lewis - Cairns
While drinking our cups of tea in the morning, a Blue-faced parrot-finch emerged from the bush and hurtled across the road. Finally! Another one appeared and they foraged in the tall grasses of the clearing. Back along our favourite track to the dam, to check on those Platypus, and we found a Red-bellied black snake swimming across dam – straight towards the spot where we think the Platypus might have had their den. However the Platypus appeared fairly unconcerned. We checked on the bowers up the trail and were treated to the glorious male Golden bowerbird perched within his glorious structure.
The trip wouldn’t be complete without a final birding on the Cairns Esplanade, so when we arrived back to Cairns we wandered up to find the Mangrove robin in the mangroves – which dutifully obliged by hopping about just where the mangroves meet the Esplanade. We marvelled at the waders (Sharp-tailed sandpipers, Bar-tailed godwits, Eastern curlews and others) we could watch from the boardwalk – wader counting without even getting muddy! We found Varied honeyeaters, Torresian pigeons and even Macleay’s fig parrots in the trees along the Esplanade.
With a final stop along the Esplanade for wine, dinner and gelato we declared the trip a success!
*Thanks to Eric Vanderduys, Gina Zimny, Anders Zimny, Stewart Macdonald, Cath Moran and Angus McNab for all the helpful advice on critter spotting in FNQ.