John Pople
(We take up John’s account of his trip while he is is camping in the Kakadu area in the N.T.)

Thursday 13th. August, 1998. On a walk back from exploring a creek I was rewarded with views of a Black Bittern. He certainly did not want to be seen and kept flying 40 or 50 yards and landing in behind the Pandanus trees along the edge of the creek. Some people coming back down the track in the opposite direction meant he was caught between us and it had him puzzled, so he went into a "you won’t notice me so much like this" pose, as he froze in a crouched position holding his long back beak straight out and slightly upward.

Along the sandy pathway edging the creek there is a patch of Silky Oaks, or similar type of tree, in full flower and filled with nectar. This nectar flow had attracted about a dozen or so friar birds of various species. I could pick out Silver-crowned and Little Friarbirds and I thought a couple of Helmeted Friarbirds, but I was not certain of them. The noise these birds could make when they all began to call was incredible. A couple of other honeyeaters, White-gaped and Brown, joined in just for good measure.

Double-bar, Long-tailed & Crimson Finches were seen as I came away from the creek, also Forest Kingfisher, Blue-winged Kookaburra, Torresian Crows and Rainbow Bee-eaters.

After lighting the fire for tea I had two visitors. The first was another Northern Brown Bandicoot and the second was a very cute little Owlet Nightjar. He came down and pounced on something on the ground, possibly a moth. Looking at this little bird head on in the torch light he just looked like a small round ball of grey feathers (about half the size of a tennis ball), with two large brown eyes, a smallish wide beak surrounded by long whiskers. I could just make out the tail at the back.

Monday 17th. August, and camping at Gunlom. After completing some shopping and making a few ‘phone calls I headed back north to Gunlom from Pine Creek. I stopped at the side of the road and was surprised to see a beautifully constructed bower of the Great Bowerbird, with a full compliment of trinkets arranged ‘just so’, only about one and a half metres off the busy bitumen road. The bower’s two walls were constructed of fine twigs about 30cm high. They were about 15cm thick and arched or curved inward at the top. There was a corridor through the centre about 60cm long, and about 15 cm wide. The bower was set amongst a patch of thin saplings and was fairly conspicuous. The ‘trinkets’ consisted of small pieces of bleached bone, bleached and whitened native snail shells, many dozens of pieces of clear or opaque glass. These latter pieces gave both the approach and exit of the bower quite a glittery appearance. Some pieces of white cardboard, a few scraps of white tissue and some small whitish stones or pebbles made up the full complement of the display.

Tuesday 18th August. In quest of the White-throated Grass-wren: MARK I !! In quite high spirits I ventured out this morning, before daylight, reaching the top of the very steep escarpment. Great Bowerbirds were about, so too were Brown Honeyeaters and Friarbirds. In one rocky area I had some good views of two or three Chestnut-quilled Rock Pigeons sitting quietly on the rock ledges. Further along a Coucal Pheasant flew out and perched nearby. I kept walking, clambering amongst the rocks, sitting to stop and listen here and there for the Grass-wrens. After about and hour or so and two litres of water later I headed off back to camp. My spirits and energy lowered somewhat, I rested up for anther try at the Grasswrens on Wednesday or Thursday.

Decided to take it quiet today. Probably overdid it yesterday. I took a walk to a billabong about 1km away and onto the South Alligator River. At the billabong I noticed a couple of Rajah Shelducks, the first I have seen in the wild. There were also Grey-crowned Babblers nesting - they were flying to and from the nest but I couldn’t make out if they were carrying food for young or just doing refurbishment to their ‘dwelling’. There were plenty of other birds as well.

During the walk I encountered three dingoes. One was about as old as I am with a very grey muzzle, a younger dog further back and on the way out a dark brown rough looking dog, possibly a hybrid.

Thursday 20th August. In quest of the White-throated Grasswren, MARK II !! In high spirits, I once again ventured out this morning. I set out well before daybreak and reached the top of the escarpment wall by about 7am. There was not a breath of wind, and the rocks were still just warm from the previous day.

After passing the upper rock pools I came across a man and his wife in their mid 60’s or early 70’s, who had been up there an half hour before me, searching for the same bird! They came from Wolloongong - Bob and Lydia David. We pooled our scant knowledge of the possible whereabouts of the Grasswren and set off following a dry creek bed. Eventually we parted company after a fruitless search. I decided to back-track. Along the way I picked up several Banded Honeyeaters, splashing about in a shallow sandy rock pool with Red-backed Fairy-wrens, Dusky & White-gaped Honeyeaters as well as Double-barred Finches. Just a few yards further on from them three Great Bowerbirds were also having a good old splash in another shallow pool. The weather was getting a bit cloudy and very hot, although is was only about 9am.

After viewing several small flocks of Red-tailed Black Cockatoos feeding on the fruiting nuts and blossoms of some eucalypts with pale salmon-yellow trunks I thought I saw something small and black disappear amongst the rocks. In a few seconds it re-appeared and sure enough it was at last the elusive White-throated Grasswren! There were two of them hopping and running between the rocks and boulders, occasionally stopping to look back in my direction. My body seemed to find new energy very rapidly and I sprinted (that really should read, ‘moved very quickly’), up towards them. I got some excellent views of them only three to four metres away. The male (I presume), stopped at this point and held his head up to give forth a wren like trill, much softer in tone than I had expected. He was letting me know that I was the intruder and that they had ‘right of way’. At no time did they attempt to fly, just running, long black tail held down most of the time. They were very good at disappearing under rock ledges and behind spinifex clumps to reappear 3 or 4 metres further on. Their colouring was just as Slater’s guide has pictured them. Really a conspicuous bird against the light grey and sandy coloured rocks and pale green of the spinifex clumps.

Friday, 21st August. I offered to climb back up the escarpment to assist Bob and Lydia in their third attempt to find the White-throated Grasswren. We arrived at the top of the steep vertical climb at about the same time as yesterday. As we did so, an English couple and also an American and his son were arriving at the top of the escarpment on the same quest! To cut a long story short, despite our tramping over piles of tumbled rocks, through spinifex, up hill and down dale, none of us sighted ‘hide nor hair’ of the Grasswrens. Everyone was, needless to say, very disappointed. People are coming to this Park nearly every day from ‘all over’ specifically to see this one little bird.

Having been here for nights and made three excursions looking for the Grasswrens I am particularly thankful for my own personal sightings of it on Thursday.

On Monday 24th August, I moved across to Litchfield National park. I camped at Florence Falls camping park. There are five camping areas in Litchfield, and I had no idea it was such a big place!

Took a drive to the town of Bachelor about 30 or 40 km’s back down the track. The town water was very clean and suitable for drinking, so filled my 20 litre containers to use over the next 4 or 5 days.

On the way back to Florence Falls there was an information centre explaining all the various types of termite mounds that are found in this area. They ranged from huge cathedral like structures, tall thin and flat, north and south pointing magnetic mounds, tree dwelling & rock dwelling types - I forget how many. The termites have every niche habitat location fully exploited.

There were a variety of birds and other animals here, but I saw nothing new.

On Monday 31st August at Howard Springs caravan park I met up with some of my family, Greg and Annette. It was good to see some family again.

I also drove into Darwin - just a small scale version of the bigger cities, but with a noticeable predominance of back-packers and other tourists swarming every which way. I headed for the relative peace of Darwin’s exotic little Botanical gardens. I explored the variety of vegetation habitats there, from lush tropical rainforest to woodland, mangroves, open lawns and gardens and a magnificent little orchid conservatorium. I was in fact looking for the Torres Strait Imperial Pigeon, a large mainly white pigeon which comes to the gardens in large flocks at times to feed mainly on the berries of the Carpentarian Palms. Signs of their recent feeding were aplenty, but no pigeons today.

I did pick out a dark morph of the Eastern Reef Egret which was looking for a feed in some shallow run-off water from the gardens down towards the mangrove area. In the mangroves themselves I though I spotted an Yellow White-eye, but was not able to get a good view of it.

At Howard Springs Nature Reserve there is a lush tropical forest. Following a pathway along the darker understory of the forest I was looking for a Rainbow Pitta. I had heard from someone who had seen one here. I had no success. Outside of the forest, but looking back on it, I saw Rose-crowned Fruit Doves, and in the morning sunlight they looked exquisite. I noticed Varied Trillers here and there, and also Blue-winged Kookaburras, White-gaped Honeyeaters, Northern Fantails & Olive-backed Orioles. Sitting high on the bare branch of a tree were a pair of Pacific Bazas (Crested Hawks) and they appeared to be scanning the top canopy of the trees just below their perch for any sigh of ‘lunch’.

About 30 or 40 km’s out along the Kakadu Highway is Fogg Dam. If I remember correctly, the dam was originally used as a water supply for a rice growing project back in the 50’s or 60’s. It is now a superb wetland habitat, surrounded by monsoon woodland. There are boardwalks and lookout towers and places constructed around a fair bit of the area. It was mid afternoon and fairly hot when I was there, but never the less it did turn up one new bird for me, the Collared Kingfisher, a pair of which flew out from the shaded roof of one of the boardwalk ‘hides’.

On a road through the middle of the dam, a flock of approximately thirty Pied Herons flew up and away from a tree growing on the edge of the track. There were some other water birds as well, such as White-faced Herons and Magpie Geese.

Tomorrow, I plan to ship out from this area and head south towards Katherine, and then west.

Monday, 7th September. I am camping in the Keep River National Park, situated on the Victoria Highway, 36 kms back from Junnurra on the N.T. side of the WA/NT border. The countryside along the Victoria highway from Katherine is really spectacular in parts, particularly passing through the Gregory National Park with the towns of Victoria River and Timber Creek. Alongside the mighty Victoria river there are spectacular ‘jump up’ escarpment skylines on one side of the highway, with most of the hills and gullies in between well covered in all types of vegetation.

This seems to be the beginning of Boab country, as you continue west towards the Kimberleys.

I had planned to camp at Timber Creek, mainly because of a resident population of Gouldian Finches which come in close to the caravan park. However the weekend also happened to be a ‘red-letter’ day in the Timber Creek social calendar with the holding of their annual races, gymkahna etc., which attract people from as far away as Darwin, and all the Kimberley region. Normally a town with only a total population of 300, it swells to thousands at this time, so my timing wasn’t too good.

(We will take up the final segment of John’s trip Part IV).

This report was published in The Christian Bird Observer’s Magazine, October 1999