Wet Season, 2018-2019

Greater Frigatebird

The ‘Wet’ season began with a cyclone over the 2018-19 Christmas/New Year period. Cyclone Owen, a category 1-2, dissipated on reaching the coast north of Cooktown. With it came violent winds and monsoonal rains which caused severe flooding in many areas.

It is now early April and since Cyclone Owen the rain gauge at Warrigal Highland Preserve has recorded 3 metres of rain. It is still raining…!

I was in Cooktown, when the cyclone reached the coast. All roads out of town were closed due to flooding and even access to local birding spots was impossible. The most productive birding was to be had along the Cooktown Esplanade overlooking the Endeavour River estuary.  

Black Mountain Skink (Liburnascincus scirtetis)

The rough weather had blown-in Frigatebirds, a Brown Booby or two, Bridled, Crested, Lesser Crested and Little Terns and at least two White-capped Noddies. A pair of White-bellied Sea-eagles were seen and heard most days, either perched in a large dead tree on the hill overlooking the Esplanade or riding the wind above the estuary. The foreshore had few birds even at low tide but I did see Common Sandpiper, Red-necked Stint, Grey-tailed Tattler, White-faced Heron, a Black-necked Stork and a pair of Eastern Reef Egrets with a very vocal young one which constantly screamed for food. Other species present along the Esplanade walk included Olive-backed Sunbird, Figbird, Hornbill Friarbird, Varied Triller, White-bellied Cuckoo-shrike, Mistletoebird, Varied Honeyeater, Large-billed Gerygone, Rainbow Lorikeet, Bar-shouldered and Peaceful doves, Pacific Baza, Grey Goshawk, Nankeen Kestrel etc. Torresian Imperial Pigeons were nesting in a very exposed tree in the garden of the motel where I was staying. The ‘surprise’ bird was a Noisy Pitta sheltering under a hedge outside my motel room on the morning of my departure.

Red-chested Button-quail

While staying in Cooktown I visited Black Mountain on my way back to the motel, after inspecting the flooded Little Annan River causeway which was my only way south once the floodwater subsided. During a break in the wild weather I noticed a dark-coloured skink appear on a granite boulder close to the car. I was able to get a reasonable photo of the locally endemic Black Mountain Skink .

In January I took a short ‘birding’ tour around the Atherton Tablelands and Misty Mountains region. The weather was appalling with monsoonal rains and low cloud. Despite the very wet conditions we had very good views (with photo opportunities) of several unusual and seldom seen species including a female Red-chested Button-quail that we found and photographed along a rainforest track. This is most definitely not the preferred habitat for R-CB-Qs. and was probably the result of a forced movement caused by either the serious drought that was declared in the interior last year, and/or the subsequent extensive inundation caused by Cyclone Owen. Since that sighting I have seen several R-CB-Qs around the region in a variety of habitats. One bird was seen feeding in association with 4 Red-backed Button-quails along another rainforest track.

A male Peregrine appeared at Warrigal Highland Rainforest Preserve in early January. It spent much of its time terrorizing White-headed and Topknot Pigeons and Wompoo and other fruit-doves. It is now early April and the bird is still around. It was seen a few days ago carrying a Brown Cuckoo-dove.

A cacophony of bird alarm calls from the usual, local rainforest dwellers, one mid-morning, alerted me to the presence of a predator. On my way to investigate I heard the loud bill-snapping of an angry Rufous Owl. The mobbing Pied Currawongs and myriad other species gave its location away. The bird was sitting on the previous nights’ kill, a Brushtail Possum. It was soon dislodged by the angry mob and disappeared back into the depths of the forest.

Rufous Owls are common at Warrigal and several nesting sites are known.  

In March we had another cyclone, this one named ‘Trevor’ which crossed the east coast of Cape York at Lockhart bringing with it 200+ kilometre an hour winds and record-breaking rains. Trevor continued westwards across Cape York to the Gulf of Carpentaria drenching the arid interior and causing extensive damage to property and the environment and wide-spread flooding.

Shortly after the cyclone I took a very enthusiastic family of four from Canada on a birding/wildlife/natural history tour. There was a reprieve in the weather and for a few days we managed to avoid the patchy downpours. Within two hours of commencing the tour we had seen 9 Southern Cassowaries; 4 adults with 5 well-grown young. A few days later we were to see two more Cassowaries 200 kilometres north, in a very different location, making a total of 11 Southern Cassowaries for the trip. Other significant sightings included an adult male Lesser Frigatebird gliding over the highland rainforest near Ravenshoe at 1,100 metres elevation. This sighting was around 100 kilometres inland and obviously the result of cyclonic winds caused by ‘Trevor’. There were reports of other sightings of Frigatebirds, gulls, terns etc being found on the ground midway between east and west coasts of Cape York and out in the Gulf Savannah region.

Despite the weather we ended the tour with a respectable number of bird mammal and reptile sightings. These included a Golden Bowerbird male at its’ bower at Warrigal on the 20th March which was unusual for the time of year and weather conditions prevailing at the time. We also saw Pied, Spectacled and Black-faced Monarchs, Yellow-breasted Boatbill, Chowchilla, Eastern Whipbird, Bower’s Shrike-thrush, Victoria’s Riflebird, Spotted Catbird, Channel-billed Cuckoo, Atherton and Yellow-throated Scrubwrens, Australia Bustard, Great Bowerbird, White-throated Needletails and many other species.

Wedge-tailed Eagles at Ravenshoe

Two pairs of Wedge-tailed Eagles perched in prominent dead trees near the road and in close proximity to each other, were an unusual sighting. The local, resident pair don’t usually allow interlopers anywhere near their territory.

Reptiles and Amphibians also presented well. They included: Estuarine Crocodile, Eastern Water Dragon, Lace Monitor, Boyd’s Forest Dragon, Frilled Lizard, Bearded Dragon, Saw-shelled Terrapin, Carpet Python etc….

Mammal sightings of note include: Lumholtz’s Tree-kangaroo, Platypus, Lemuroid, Herbert River and Green Ringtail Possums, Coppery Brustail Possum, Sugar Glider, Musky Rat-kangaroo, Red-legged Pademelon, Northern Swamp, Whiptail and Agile Wallabies, Eastern Grey Kangaroo, Mareeba Rock-wallaby and Long-nosed Bandicoot.

Other sightings of interest included Peppermint Phasmids and a small group of Snakehead Gudgeon that presented well in a shallow, crystal clear rainforest stream near Daintree. The lighting conditions even allowed for a half decent photographic opportunity as the header image above will testify.

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