Far Northern Queensland – #1

The mountains of Far Northern Queensland are tropical rain forests for the most part. They descend to the coast north of Cairns near the Daintree River and a regular feature of the eastern slope of the mountains from Cairns northward. The Atherton Tablelands are less than a mile in elevation and spread westward on a high plateau. The elevation moderates the climate allowing for dairy farming and agriculture in this region. The variety of habitats in the area are all within a couple hours drive of Cairns, but going further and staying in local accommodations offers a better experience. Where the forest remains intact the birds and mammals are largely endemic. 
Far Northern Queensland (FNQ) is warm, humid, often wet, and the home to many very special animals and gorgeous landscapes. The Great Barrier Reef (GBR) shadows the FNQ coast line and extends hundreds of miles further north off the coast of New Guinea. Inland from the GBR the continent is edged with a narrow, lush, often rugged, and (like most of Australia actually) rather sparsely populated strip of wet forest. Just north of Cairns and extending north of the Daintree River the wet tropical rain forest offers surprising contrast to your intuitive pictures of Australia. The region is wet with mountain runoff, streams and creeks, and extensive tidal rivers. The fresh water creeks are lined with tall trees and the brackish areas are dense with mangroves. However, even in this bit of “green” Australia you don’t have to go far to find dry, crunchy woodlands. The habitat representation here is quite diverse; there are coastal and riparian woodland communities; there are sea level and upland habitats, and there are tropically wet and outback-dry habitats. This is a naturalists heaven. It is also a haven for Australian fishermen.

From Cairns you can easily drive into the mountains in the Barron Gorge area heading for Kuranda. The roads are winding and pull-offs (lay-bys) limited, but the views and forest are enchanting. The small village of Kuranda offers a chance to walk forest tracks into the moist woods and to grab a meal after your hike. The outlying countryside is not all tropically wet woodlands; the Atherton Tablelands reach south from Kuranda and are a rich agricultural area. Just west of the table lands the outback begins. The wet coastal forest is a narrow strip, a reminder of ancient times.

We headed west and then north ending up at the Kingfisher Park Birdwatchers Lodge in Julatten, where we stayed for several days. Keith and Lindsay Fisher are both birders, photographers and Lodge managers. We arrived in the mid-afternoon, quickly settled in and then had a walk around the grounds. The Lodge is only an hour-and-a-half from Cairns if one were to drive directly; we didn’t drive directly and took the better part of nine hours to reach Kingfisher Park. Our room was large and the kitchen well appointed. We were able to survive quite nicely. The highlights of our evening walk were Duck-billed Platypus and Noisy Pitta, but there was so much more… 
There are many large and showy doves and pigeons in Australia. Some, especially the Fruit-Doves, are  like painted ladies (butterfly reference) having greens, reds, and pinks as predominate colors. There are some pigeons with very tall crests and others with striking white and brown patterns. Others are bronzed and flash golden colors in the sunlight. There are fifteen species that are the same size or larger than the common pigeon. The dove pictured above is a Squatter Pigeon; a bird of grassy woodlands found west of the great Dividing Range.
The Bar-shouldered Dove was common throughout our travels. At Kingfisher Park they were regular at the bird bath.

Because Australia is low in human density the various habitats are in rather good shape. Some of the arable land has been cleared of forest and taken over for agriculture but there are still forests that remain. The less attractive land (by human standards) remains in large, often huge, blocks. This is true throughout the continent but remains true even in more populated areas like the land east of the Great Dividing Range. In FNQ there are forests that protect residential areas from flooding and others that serve as freshwater recharge areas for developed areas like Cairns. The further out one goes from the cities the more undeveloped the land is. It should be remembered that Australia has huge mining industries and there are places that are being excavated and devoured ruthlessly and thoroughly, at least from a naturalists point of view.

Water dragons are not uncommon but not always easy to see. This one was in a creek just below a small bridge. As with many creatures they are easiest to see in areas where they have learned to live with people. City parks (Brisbane for example) often have rather low key (relaxed) Water Dragons in residence. Wildlife exposed to bustling human populations often acclimate and in turn make very good photographic models.
We found bower birds from Darwin and Pine Creek east to the tablelands, The Great Bowerbird is shown on other blog pages but this bower was the richest. It has separate piles of glass and shells, each further separated by color. This bower was right in town, a small town but still a town. It was also adjacent to a sidewalk and no more than four meters off the road. Maybe he was looking for a rather urban female.

I mentioned that fisherman use the coast and waterways of FNQ. One of the most highly regarded fish is the Barramundi. It is now farmed extensively and serves as the piscine mainstay of Australian restaurants. The Barramundi, or Asian Sea bass, is a native of northern Australia and the islands to the north all the way to Thailand where it is a routine component of the diet. It is a catadromous fish living mostly in warm fresh water and breeding in shallow sea water, mostly in estuaries and over tidal flats. The fish usually mature as males and breed as males for at least one season then they transition into females and become egg-layers for the rest of their lives. Thus most large fish are females.

In Julatten there is a large Barramundi farm. As birders we enjoyed the White-bellied Sea Eagles and Osprey that were attracted to the site. 
One of the birding sites near The Kingfisher Park Birdwatchers Lodge is the Abbatoir Swamp. Here we were able to relax in a blind (hide) and chat with British, Danish, and Australian birders who happened by. There were cows, birds, and reptiles here. We had very close looks at the White-cheeked Honeyeater and several others. We stopped here for a few minutes every time we drove past.
The White-cheeked Honeyeater is very similar to the New Holland Honeyeater.

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