Forest once covered much of the Atherton Tableland, but while much of that was cleared to create agricultural land some important parts remain. It is these forests, and not the wetlands I have spoken of before, that hold the many endemics that make the Atherton Tableland such a rewarding place to go birding.

The Australian Brush-turkey (Alectura lathami) is a common sight in the rainforests of Australia. While it superficially looks like a turkey it is actually a megapode, or mound-builder.

Mt Hypipamee

A beautiful forest part in the southern part of the Tableland, it is perhaps one of the most rewarding places to bird in the area. The park is most famous for regular Southern Cassowary sightings, although I didn’t see any. I first visited the park after my damp morning on the Daintree River, deciding that I wanted to go somewhere as far away as possible from that miserable river (my mind clearly wasn’t working well). But the park was very rewarding. In the parking area I immediately encountered a pair of Australian Brush-turkeys as well as a new species for me, a Grey-headed Robin. This huge member of the Australian robin family is really tame in this carpark, making it probably the easiest place n the world to see the species (other than the Tableland it is only found in New Guinea). A quick walk netted me some Atherton Scrubwrens, an endemic, as well as a Yellow-throated Scrubwren, a species that mostly occurs in southern Australia but has a small disjunct population around the Tableland. Eastern Whipbirds where about and conspicuos, both in their voice an more surprisingly visually. They are usually pretty hard to see. One final surprise was a Green Ringtail, an endemic possum. The species is somewhat unique in that it doesn’t spend the day curled up in a hollow but instead sleeps in the open on a branch, making it possible to see in the day.

Grey-headed Robin (Heteromyias albispecularis)

I visited the park on two further occasions over the next few days. I found that the long road to the parking lot was particulary productive, on both days I saw one of my birds of the trip on it. They were both females, which is something of a shame considering what the males look like, female Victoria’s Riflebirds. Not just new species for me, but the first bird-of-paradise I have ever seen, which was very exciting. They were larger than I imagined, about the size of a small dove. Although the females lack the gaudy colours of the males they are none the less attractive birds. Another great endemic bird found along the road was the Bower’s Shrike-thrush. It was very loud and had an attractive call, even if it looked somewhat dull in person. One attractive bird I found next to the Crater, as massive sinkhole in the middle of the park, was a Scarlet Honeyeater, which had the same intensity of red as a Cardinal. It wasn’t the only lifer honeyeater in the park, I also saw some Bridled Honeyeaters high in canopy from the parking lot. Other birds of note included the White-throated Treecreeper, the Brown Gerygone, the Mountain Thornbill, and the Rufous Fantail. Another nice find was a Red-legged Padmelon, a small forest wallaby that is fairly common around the area.

Bower’s Shrike-thrush (Colluricincla boweri) By Tom Tarrant (CC)

Lake Eacham

I drove to Lake Eacham one day in something of a bad mood. I can’t recall why, but I do remember knowing that it wasn’t a good sign. I’ve often found that your mood and enjoyment reflect how well you do, and that having a bad or pessimistic mood makes you more likely to miss things. It was also approaching midday, which is never the best time to bird anyway. the day before I had gone to nearby Lake Barrine at roughly the same time and seen a whole lot of nothing.

Lake Eacham is a crater lake that was once home to an endemic fish, but that species is gone from the lake due to introduced (but native) fishes (the species survies thanks to fish fanciers  collecting them, however). The lake is also home to the Saw-shelled Turtle, which is easy to see from the shore.

Saw-shelled Turtle (Myuchelys latisternum)

My pessimism about the place was short-lived, however. The parking lot was crowded, for sure, with holiday makers looking for some crocodile-free freshwater to swim in, but aboe the crowds a small group Barred Cuckoo-shrike were feeding on fruit in a leafless tree. These attractive birds are quite the handsomest members of their family in Australia, and were just the thing to lift my mood. I set off on the trail around the lake, which was refreshingly cool considering the location. It didn’t take me long to find more things of interest, including a stunning male Golden Whistler and an attractive Macleay’s Honeyeater. One the reptile front a small Lace Monitor high up a tree was a pretty cool spot. And then I heard something loud.

It took me a while to pinpoint the bird, fortunately it wasn’t moving about but it was sitting some way off the path in dense understory. But when I did find I was pleased, as I had suspected it was a Tooth-billed Bowerbird, one of the prize birds of the Atherton Tableland. The bowerbird was calling from what was presumably its bower, although the bowers of this species are fairly rudimentary, just a cleared bit of forest floor with some leaves placed on them. The species is sometimes called the  Tooth-billed Catbird, but the term catbird is usually used for the non-bower building members of the family.

The white pattern in the bill of the Tooth-billed Bowerbird (Scenopoeetes dentirostris)  is what gives the species its name. Image by David Cook (CC)

A couple of minutes down the path I lucked out with a pair of Spotted Catbirds. While I had gotten quick look at these guys at the Kingfisher Lodge, here I was on a path above them, and was able to watch the pair of them foraging in the mid story for five minutes. Great birds didn’t stop there either. Along with the usual Australian Brush-turkeys, and some scrubwrens (I’m not one hundred percent sure which species) I got two more lifers, the Brown Cuckoo-dove, and attractive long tailed species, and the Grey Whistler, something of a rarity which I was very surprised with (I’m glad I had a long time to look at it to make sure). I also got a much better look at a Tooth-billed Bowerbird, although this one wasn’t singing at a bower. And one final treat was a Musky Rat-kangaroo, the smallest member of the macropod (kangaroo and wallaby) suborder, no bigger than a guinea-pig. Oddly for small macropods you’ll find them out and about in the day. They are also apparently one of the easiest mammals to see in the forests of the Tableland.

Mount Molloy

Not really a forest but a small village near the Kingfisher Lodge, this is getting tacked on the end here since there is nowhere else to lump it. It’s proximity to Kingfisher Lodge and the pub and petrol station aren’t the only reason why it is worth a visit, the birding here is actually surprisingly good. The habitat here is drier nad has more birds associated with bush as opposed to forest. The flowering trees on the road through town are a good place to find Dusky Honeyeaters, Rainbow Lorikeets and Figbirds, and the stunning Red-winged Parrot is also present in the town. I was also pleased with a massive Blue-faced Honeyeater. which has vibrant blue wattles on its face which give it its name. Also a draw are several Greater Bowerbirds, including one of their bowers in the grounds of the school. Make sure the school isn’t in when you look for it, however!

Red-winged Parrot (Aprosmictus erythropterus) by Michael Jefferies (CC)

Written by Duncan
Duncan Wright is a Wellington-based ornithologist working on the evolution of New Zealand's birds. He's previously poked albatrosses with sticks in Hawaii, provided target practice for gulls in California, chased monkeys up and down hills Uganda, wrestled sharks in the Bahamas and played God with grasshopper genetics in Namibia. He came into studying birds rather later in life, and could quit any time he wants to.