I visited a large number of locations while staying in the Atherton tablelands, and I thought it might make sense to break my stories about them into two articles. Next week I’ll be talking about the forest parks and patches I visited, but today I’ll give the lowdown on some of the wetlands you can vist there.

Mareeba Wetlands

Just north of the town of Mareeba are the Mareeba Wetlands, a large lake reserve that protects both wetlands and northern savannah. It’s reached down a long, seven kilometre, gravel driveway that freaked me out since I wasn’t suposed to drive down unsealed roads – but a driveway was fine… I think. At any rate the drive alone was worth it, particularly for the Australian Bustard I saw halfway down the drive. One of Australia’s largest and most magnificent flying birds, this was a real treat for me. The only one I had ever seen before had barely escaped being hit by the Greyhound Bus I had been travelling from Darwin to Perth on a decade previously. This was certainly a more leisurely view! The driveway also showed up some large, floppy Pheasant Coucals (there is no word that applies to this species better than floppy, they remind me of my parents’ cocker spaniel) and some Whistling Kites circling over a small (managed) bushfire, and some White-faced Herons.

Australian Bustard (Ardeotis australis) slinking away.

I didn’t have long to spend at the sanctuary, having not really planned to visit it at all. It is supposed to be close from January through March, the rainy season, but I guess the rain was late and it was only two days into January, so it was still open. If I had more time I could have hiked around to find one of the star attractions, Gouldian Finches, but I had gone there mainly to find two of my target families, storks and cranes. I didn’t find either, but I did encounter one of my other targets, quite unexpectedly, a Grey-crowned Babbler. A member of the Australian babbler family (a new family for me), it was on the path to the interpretive centre and quite oblivious to me as it used its massive bill to pry around in dead leaves and twigs for insects. Another nice find right outside the centre was a Emu, although it was so tame it can hardly be called a find. The centre had a massive balcony that overlooked a large reedy and lilypad strewn lake, which was home to fantastic birds like Comb-crested Jacanas and Green Pygmy Geese, birds so small you’d think they were small ducks. There were also Australian Darters, Hardheads (or White-eyed Ducks)  and Welcome Swallows.

Lake Mitchell

As you drive north from Mareeba you pass by the inviting swampy lake that is Lake Mitchell, but be careful as the road is fast and the banks unforgiving and you really don’t want to put your rental into the ditch! I passed this lake many times as I drove from Kingfisher Lodge to the main locations in the Atherton Tableland. Even from the road it was easy to identify Australian Pelicans and Australian Darters, and early one morning I saw a crane of some description soaring above the lake. The most productive birding happened one morning when I pulled up alongside a small dirt road that went alongside the main lake (with a smaller lake on the other side) and walked its length. Like with Mareeba the surrounding vegetation was savannah, and I saw a range of wetland and bush birds. Straight out of the car I was greeted by a Pied Butcherbird, and a few hundred metres down the road a pair of exciting lifers, a Golden-headed Cisticola proudly singing from the top of a tall bush and a small family of Red-backed Fairy-wrens. I’ve talked about how attractive fairy-wrens are before, but this was something else, imagine a fairy-wren with the glossy livery of a Red-winged Blackbird and you might understand the jewel I saw.

Male Red-backed Fairy-wren (Malurus melanocephalus) by Tom Tarrant (Creative Commons)

 After walking past some denser bush at the start of the road the lake eventually reappeared and I could get at look at the waterfowl. There were ducks and their relatives, including Pacific Black Ducks (or Grey Ducks as we call them in NZ), more Green Pygmy Geese, and Magpie Geese. Magpie Geese are massive evolutionary oddities, only found in the Australasian region they are related to but usually considered separate from the main duck/goose/swan family. They used to be common across Australia, but having declined in the south they are now more common in the wet north (they are recovering down south though, and there are a few spots in Sydney they can be seen). They are actually quite common to see on small patches of water around the tableland. There were also some more Comb-crested Jacana, two pretty kingfishers, the Woodland Kingfisher and a Blue-winged Kookaburra (a much shier species than its bold, laughing cousin), and most excitingly, a pair of Black-necked Storks. This species, the only one found in Australia, is also known as the Jabiru; while people sometimes think that it is an Aboriginal term (it sounds like Kakadu after all), it’s actually a transplanted term from Central and South America!

 Lake Mitchell

Hasties Swamp

I didn’t actually intend to go to Hasties Swamp National Park, just south of Atherton. I had, apparently, missed the crane season and even if I hadn’t you needed to be there early or late to see cranes, and it was just that bit too far away from Kingfisher to reach early enough to see cranes anyway, or so I thought. But I drove past the turn off and decided, on a whim, at around midday, to check it out, just in case. As I arrived six crnaes took off and circled high over my car, two high to identify, but it was still a pleasing sight. I love cranes (few birders don’t) and hadn’t seen one in about six years (except that lone individual at Mitchell the day before). The cranes of Australia are quite interesting, there is one species that has been known for many years, the Brolga, but in the 1960s another large crane was discovered in the north that had somehow eluded scientists for over a century, the slightly larger Sarus Crane (familiar to people who have birders India). Quite how birders and scientists managed to miss a bird as large as a crane is something of a mystery. The swamp was certainly worth a visit though. There were large flocks of Plumed Whistling-ducks, some Royal Spoonbills, Great Egrets, Australian Pelicans, Pacific Black Ducks, Purple Swamphens and Masked Plovers. And I eventually managed to get close enough to four cranes on the ground and was able to pick out three Brolga and one Sarus Crane. Success!

Plumed Whistling-ducks (Dendrocygna eytoni)

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.