Australia’s Top End: Victoria River to Kakadu
Bursts of color in a red landscape.
This tour focuses on the Top End, the most diverse part of the Northern Territory. It is home to some truly spectacular birds, including the gorgeous Gouldian Finch, the delightful Purple-crowned Fairywren, the glistening Rainbow Pitta, and the ultramarine Hooded Parrot. Along with these “prize-winning” birds is a fascinating landscape comprising of wet monsoon forests, dry Eucalypt savanna and stunning sandstone canyons, in addition to some truly fascinating Aboriginal culture, including the ancient aboriginal rock galleries of Nourlangie Rock in Kakadu. This tour offers up a real taste of the outback along with a number of highly localized species only found in the Top End. It therefore makes for a great combination with our very popular eastern Australia tour, as both tours have a completely different feel and visit very different areas of this absorbing continent.
Day 1: Arrival and Nightcliff, Buffalo Creek, Lee Point. The tour starts at noon. Our first day in the Top End will see us visiting a number of easily accessible birding sites close to Darwin, packing in as many birds as possible before dark. We’ll begin in mangroves near Nightcliff where we will be searching for specialties of this habitat, like Mangrove Fantail, Mangrove Gerygone, Australian Yellow White-eye, Red-headed Myzomela, Black-tailed Whistler, and the rare and local White-breasted Whistler. After it starts to heat up we will head over to Buffalo Creek where we have a shot at the ridiculously loud Chestnut Rail, either feeding on the exposed mud or skulking in the mangroves. The beach that borders these mangrove stands often holds Great-billed Heron among a smattering of regular Aussie shorebirds, like Greater and Lesser Sandplovers, Great Knot, Terek Sandpiper, and Red-necked Stint. After an hour or so of shorebirds we will shoot over to Knuckey’s Lagoon checking for Chestnut-breasted Munias hiding in the grass bordering the lake, while with luck on the lake itself we could be treated to huge flocks of migrant Little Curlews. We spend the first night in Darwin.
Day 2: East Point and Fogg Dam to Katherine. Dawn will see us at East Point having breakfast in the field with Rainbow Pittas and Rose-crowned Fruit-Doves for company. Later we drive to one of the Top End’s premier wetlands, Fogg Dam. Around the dam itself we’ll be thrilled with the site of thousands of wetland birds, including Magpie-Geese, Pied Herons, Green Pygmy-Geese, and maybe a Buff-banded Rail or White-browed Crake scurrying out of the reeds. In the monsoon forest, we have further chances at the Top End’s sexiest bird (if we need to): the technicolored Rainbow Pitta. Later, we head southwards to Pine Creek, stopping off at this old gold mining area for the opalescent Hooded Parrot. If time allows and the birds are breeding we will also stop off at a good site for Red Goshawk, one of the rarest raptors in Australia. We overnight in Katherine.
Day 3: Katherine to Victoria River. Today we’ll drive to Victoria River for a two-night stay. This area is home to two rare, localized species that will be our focus for the day. Checking out the tall cane grass near the river should get us our first member of the exquisite fairywrens, the dazzling Purple-crowned Fairywren, another Top End specialty. The other main target will be White-quilled Rock-Pigeon, a highly localized species of the rugged, sandstone escarpments in this area.
Day 4: Timber Creek and Victoria River. A day trip out to the tiny town of Timber Creek will bring us into Star Finch country. While searching through the many finch flocks that roam this area we hope to find this rarity along with Long-tailed, Masked, and Double-barred Finches, or even the rare and seductive Gouldian Finch. A visit to a deserted airfield may produce wintering Oriental Plovers feeding alongside the early morning groups of Agile Wallabies. After sifting through the finch flocks, we’ll change tack and head into a patch of monsoon forest for the brilliant Bar-breasted Honeyeater and Buff-sided Robin, before we return to Victoria River for the night.
Day 5: Victoria River to Mary River. We’ll head to the small Mary River Roadhouse, perched on the edge of world famous Kakadu National Park for a two-night stay. Along the way, Cockatiels, Red-backed Fairywrens, Leaden and Paperbark Flycatchers, and Banded Honeyeaters are all possible. We’ll listen at dusk for the strange, dog-like calls of Barking Owls that can sometimes be found right around our hotel.
Day 6: Gunlom Falls and Plum Creek (Kakadu NP). We’ll need an early morning start to get up to the spinifex escarpment before the day heats up, where we have our only shot at the seldom seen White-throated Grasswren and Chestnut-quilled Rock-Pigeon, the latter a much more attractive bird than the field guides suggest. In the afternoon, we’ll head to Plum Creek and walk over rolling uranium-filled conglomerate hills in search of the striking Partridge Pigeon, among other Outback species.
Day 7: Nourlangie Rock and Yellow Waters Billabong (Kakadu NP). Today we head into the heart of Aboriginal country in Kakadu. Our first stop will be the mighty sandstone outlier of Nourlangie Rock, part of the Arnhem Land Escarpment. Among Nourlangie’s many attractions are its extensive galleries of aboriginal art dating back thousands of years, and also the scenically impressive blood-red sandstone cliffs that form this mighty outcrop. There are a number of local specialties; beautiful Black-banded Fruit-Doves and Black-tailed Treecreepers inhabit the monsoon forest surrounding the base, while Sandstone Shrike-thrushes and White-lined Honeyeaters may be found on the rock itself. We then head to Cooinda for the night, but we’ll have time to take a lazy afternoon boat trip down the South Alligator River to the Yellow Waters Billabong, where our boatman will ensure we’ll get incredible looks at a horde of kingfishers, herons, cranes, dotterels, and other waterbirds. This fascinating boat trip will also see us come face to face with one of Australia’s most famed predators, the Saltwater Crocodile, from the comfort of our modern boat.
Day 8: Kakadu NP to Darwin. We’ll spend the morning in Kakadu searching for some key birds, such as Partridge Pigeon and Bar-breasted Honeyeater, before we head back to Darwin for another night. On our return journey we can check further sites for Gouldian Finch, Mangrove Fantail, and Black-tailed Whistler, if required.
Day 9: Departure. Depending on flight schedules, we may have time for some birding near Darwin before we depart.
A gallery of the habitats we’ll bird on this tour
CLIMATE: Hot. Usually dry, but humid in Darwin. Little rain expected.
DIFFICULTY: Mostly easy. There is one optional strenuous walk at Gunlom Falls.
ACCOMMODATION: Moderate to very good, private facilities throughout. Much of the accommodation will be in typical outback roadhouses, which are much like American motels, though the rooms can sometimes be small.