Atherton Tablelands and Iron Range trip report

11 – 23 July 2015 with some post-tour notes en route to Cairns

Tour leader: Philip Maher

Tour organiser: Patricia Maher
Sunbird, Centennial Lakes, Cairns 11 July 2015

Day 1
Cairns to Eacham
Cairns’ famous esplanade was our first port of call, just a stone’s throw from our accommodation, the Mercure Harbourside. While overwintering waders weren’t plentiful, we did pick up bar-tailed godwit, grey-tailed tattler, great knot and eastern curlew. The mangroves to the north end of the esplanade afforded us great views of at least three pairs of mangrove robins and a pair of collared kingfishers. An osprey flew over carrying a fish to its nest.

Given we’d be at higher elevations when we headed up to the Tablelands, this morning was an opportunity for some lowland species so we birded and picnicked at Centennial Lakes. We saw drongo, sunbird, large-billed gerygone and scrubfowl and a pair of black butcherbirds, with a lovely brown juvenile; we also added radjah shelduck, a species I’d not seen here before but we missed little kingfisher, which had rarely failed me in these gardens. 

Butterflies included orange bush-brown, varied eggfly and blue tiger. We shared the picnic area with a superhero-themed kids' birthday party, supervised by a mum kitted out as Wonderwoman. Trisha, another wonder woman, organised the first of many meals for this tour.

Southbound, we stopped at Edmonton where I used to get crimson finches. No luck but there was a pair of Brahminy kites building a nest. Heading up the Lamb Range to the Tablelands, we stopped briefly in a dry eucalyptus forest, which had some brilliant orange-flowered mistletoe. Here we had scarlet and white-throated honeyeaters and mistletoebird.

Mistletoe sp. Lambs Range 11 July 2015

Trisha was cooking up a storm at Chamber’s Rainforest Lodge’s kitchen when we arrived there late afternoon. Margaret and Ian joined us for dinner before a spotlighting excursion for lesser sooty owl, a potential new bird for Margaret. As we were driving through the forest, en route to where I’d been seeing lesser sooty in recent years, one flew up from the roadside, not ten minutes from the lodge. A very happy Margaret and Ian headed back over to Julatten and we headed back to Chambers’ feeding station to catch up with striped possum, sugar glider and northern brown bandicoot.

Lesser sooty owl. Eacham, 11 July 2015
Day 2: Chambers’ Rainforest Lodge, Eacham
Two of our key birds today, Victoria’s riflebird and spotted catbird, came in to breakfast on the fruit that had been put out for them. Here we also had our first yellow-breasted boatbill. Chowchillas were calling but not seen.

Victoria's riflebird, Eacham, 12 July 2015

We headed over to Mt Hypipamee. En route, in a citrus orchard, we spied a group of bush stone-curlew. Despite it being a nice sunny day, it was hard going at Mt Hypipamee. We managed mountain thornbill, white-throated treecreeper (race miner), grey-headed and pale yellow robin, Bower’s shrike-thrush and bridled honeyeater. The golden bowerbird’s bower, while adorned with fresh lichen, didn’t this time deliver the bird.  Back to Chambers for lunch and then to Lake Barrine, where we had our first looks at a couple of groups of chowchillas and our first Ulysses swallowtail butterflies.

Bush stone-curlew, near Lake Eacham, 11 July 2015

After dark, we spotlighted mainly for mammals. Herbert River ringtail and coppery brushtail possums and many northern brown bandicoots were seen, as was the dark race of southern boobook (lurida). Red-legged pademelons fed around the accommodation.

 Day 3
At the lodge, we saw large-billed scrubwren, brown gerygone and little shrike-thrush before heading up the road to Lake Eacham, where, in a fruiting tree in the carpark, several barred cuckoo-shrikes fed unperturbed by our close proximity, as was brown cuckoo-dove. A very large, tourist amenable amethyst python was sunning itself in the carpark. We scored, as we left Lake Eacham, a grey phase grey goshawk perched in a roadside tree.

John, at Chambers’ Rainforest Lodge, gave us the heads up on a family of Lumholtz’s tree-kangaroos along a strip of rainforest not far from Malanda.

Amethyst python Lake Eacham, 13 July 2015

Many sarus cranes were seen while we were en route to Atherton for lunch, which was at Hallorans’ Hill Park, where we picked up white-cheeked honeyeater. A walk along a nearby creek produced an immature pied monarch. Flowering eucalypts supported many nectar feeders including rainbow and scaly-breasted lorikeets and white-naped, yellow faced and bridled honeyeaters.

Before heading to Kingfisher Park at Julatten, we called in to Hasties Swamp where the day’s list was quickly padded out with waterbirds. The best were plumed whistle-duck, magpie goose and the now seemingly resident freckled duck, of which there were several. Our first red-tailed black-cockatoos were seen on our way to Kingfisher Park.

Day 4
After an early breakfast, we worked our way up Mt Lewis. At one of our first stops, we had scope views of a bunch of top-knot pigeons sunning themselves in the morning’s first rays.

It was cold and windy up at the clearing on Mt Lewis and we worked hard for birds. Good views of a male chowchilla and our first Atherton scrubwrens were had. A group of satin bowerbirds were seen but not our target bowerbirds: toothed-billed and golden. A fernwren was glimpsed before we headed back to the accommodation for lunch.

Birding around Kingfisher Park and surrounds proved more productive than Mt Lewis. We added rufous fantail and Macleay’s, yellow-spotted and graceful honeyeaters, as well as another pair of Atherton scrubwrens, uncommon at such low altitude. Nearby to KP we obtained nice views of double-eyed fig-parrots, lemon-bellied flycatcher and a willy wagtail on the back of a Brahmin bull. Wompoo fruit-doves called at dusk, and a pair of barking owls heralded the night. Our old friend, and FNQ birding authority, Lloyd Neilsen came for dinner.

Day 5
We were missing some of the wet tropic endemics so there was only one place to go, i.e., back up Mt Lewis. While waiting for the temperature to rise, we birded around KP. A good move as we added a beautiful adult pied monarch in the orchard, as well as grey-headed robin and red-legged pademelon. It was one degree (C) warmer than the previous day and less windy. This made a remarkable difference in the number of species we saw. A good view was had of fernwren, and more Atherton scrubwrens, as well as two Bower’s shrike-thrush and several female golden bowerbirds, but still no tooth-billed.

Back to KP for lunch where Trisha had made up a platter before heading back to Cairns Airport to collect Neil for part two of the tour. In the afternoon we drove to a spot for lovely fairywren at Mt Molloy. Good views were had of both sexes; the female of this species is very attractive. Going south of Mt Molloy to Big Mitchell Creek, we searched unsuccessfully for an hour or so for white-browed robin. Across the road at Lake Mitchell, we whiled away the last remaining daylight adding a swag of waterbirds to the day’s list. Best birds for the area were glossy ibis and Australian hobby.  

Day 6 Julatten to Musgrave
Now this is where the best-laid plans came unstuck! We were driving two 4WDs hired from Meteor Rentals in Cairns. As we set off from KP on our big adventure, Trisha radioed to say her vehicle would not go more than 20 kilometres an hour. She crawled into the Mt Molloy Service Centre. The mechanic said the engine was “missing” but didn’t know the crux of the problem (nor did he have time to explore it too thoroughly). Trisha phoned Meteor and another vehicle arrived from Cairns fairly promptly (given the distance and geography). She now had “the boss’s” Nissan dualcab 4x4, which proved to have an annoying idiosyncrasy of its own. We, in the meantime, had gone out to Mt Carbine; the better birds seen being diamond dove and bustard. (See the end of this report for what was wrong with Trisha’s vehicle and heed the warning). Given we still had a long drive to Musgrave in front of us, we ate an early lunch at Lobo Loco, the Mexican café in Mt Molloy (surprisingly efficient if somewhat Fawlty Towers like) and headed to Musgrave Roadhouse. Around Lakelands, there were quite a few red-backed kingfishers on the wires and more bustards seen close to the road.  Later in the day, green pygmy geese were seen and a banded honeyeater glimpsed at a roadside dam, and we also had a group of uncoloured red-backed fairywrens.

 Day 7
We spent the morning with Sue Sheppard, the excellent steward of golden-shouldered parrots and with her family, the owner of Artemis Station. We saw about a dozen parrots, mostly immatures but did get one beautifully coloured adult male. We were in a nice area of woodland and had good looks at silver-crowned friarbird, red-browed and striated pardalotes, the white-eared form of masked finch (race leucolis), white-throated gerygone, fantail cuckoo, little bronze-cuckoo and little woodswallow. Back out on the road, we saw our first pair of black-backed butcherbirds, and on a small waterhole, our first jabiru (black-necked stork).

An early picnic dinner down at Lakefield NP with the plan we ’d spotlight our way back to Musgrave Roadhouse. We had our first pallid cuckoo whilst driving into the park. The Nilford Plain was quite productive with brown songlark — a surprise as I wasn’t expecting it so far north; and bustard, jabiru, Horsfield’s bushlark, Australian hobby and black-shouldered kite. We witnessed a stunning sunset over the plain. Perhaps not so good for owls ­ nil seen. We had ten spotted nightjars on the plain, and in woodland on our way home, a barn owl. The species of the night turned out to be a reptile: a very fine black-headed python.

Day 8
Musgrave to Archer River Roadhouse
After breakfast, we drove out west of Musgrave. Pale-headed rosellas were probably the best bird encountered. We saw a couple of very dark grey female euros and surprisingly (to me at least), an eastern grey kangaroo, possibly well north of its normal range.

We headed back towards Lakefield NP but not far from Musgrave, in tall woodland, we encountered a group of birders focused on a red goshawk, most likely a male. Naturally we stopped (it was what we were going for anyway; these guys just made the task that much easier). Our only sighting of yellow-tinted honeyeater was also here. Lots of species drank, bathed and fed around a waterhole on Nilford
Plain including good numbers of black-throated finch, and (mostly juvenile) star finches, Jacky Winter (our only sighting for the tour), lemon-bellied flycatcher, white-throated gerygone, hundreds of diamond doves and rufous-banded honeyeater, again the tour’s only record. A couple of red-chested buttonquail flushed. A whipsnake at the waterhole is proving hard to identify (suggestions welcomed). I believe it’s a lesser black whipsnake Demansia vestigiata although the description doesn't fit perfectly. On the nearby plain, we recorded our only black-breasted buzzard for the tour. Wandering whistle-duck was added to the list at the Lotus Lodge wetland. Retracing our steps to Musgrave, we encountered the female red goshawk sitting quietly in a tree near the road. A wonderful morning!

While we were fuelling up, back at the roadhouse, a very pale black-backed butcherbird was observed. A late lunch and on to Archer River, adding nothing new to the sightings.

Whipsnake sp. 18 July 2015, Lakefield NP

Day 9
Archer River to Iron Range
Spotted whistle-ducks had recently been seen at the lagoon behind the Archer River Roadhouse so we checked it out but found only plumed whistle-ducks. From its lookout, a very rufous Australian hobby surveyed the wetland. Down along the river, tawny-breasted honeyeater, the first of the Cape York endemics, was seen. There was a lot of honeyeater activity in flowering trees not far north of Archer River. Rufous-throated, banded, brown-backed and yellow honeyeaters and silver-crowned friarbirds were busy feeding. We lunched in a nice patch of rainforest on the Pascoe River but nothing of note was seen.  In heathland, east of Pascoe River, we saw our first white-streaked honeyeaters and managed a bar-breasted, which I was afraid we’d missed. A lovely female dingo was observed at close range. This stretch of road boasted some spectacular trees and mistletoes. It was a big honeyeater day, with thirteen species recorded. Our only sighting of azure kingfisher was obtained today at one of the many creek crossings. Tropical scrubwren, another Cape York endemic, was seen at the first patch of rainforest at the West Claudie River and a large group of nearby, noisy eclectus parrots were seen in flight.

Day 10
Iron Range NP
We birded the rainforest from Cook’s Hut to Gorden Creek. To my mind, it was much harder going than my last visit here about fifteen years ago. Magnificent riflebird called and was seen briefly but very few birds were calling. We eventually tracked down a pair of white-faced robins on a nest and a tawny-breasted honeyeater collecting nest material. Anwyn had a nice view of a wompoo dove. A close up yellow-billed kingfisher was admired as we were walked back to the car. Heading back to Lockhart River Cabins for lunch, we stopped to look at a male and female eclectus parrot near their nest hole. They seemed to be in dispute with a sulphur-crested cockatoo over nest hole rights. Several black butcherbirds were seen but it was tough going. It didn’t improve much in the afternoon except for a brief look at frilled-necked monarch. Only three endemics viewed well today but they were good ones!

Yellow-billed kingfisher, 20 July 2015

Day 11
Iron Range
Off to a great start this morning with a pair of palm cockatoos feeding on the roadside not far from our accommodation. We went back to West Claudie rainforest; it was a lot birdier here. At one of the crossings, we had brief views of a pair of trumpet manucodes. Our next good sighting was a pair of frilled-necked monarchs — what a super bird — and then a pair of white-eared monarchs. A bit further along the road there was a small feeding party of rufous fantails, fairy gerygones, silvereyes and green-backed honeyeaters. What a strange little honeyeater that is with its short, stout bill and pale iris. Most plain birds have a pleasant call but not this little guy; its charm is in its peculiarity. We saw this species twice and both times in the company of fairy gerygones, so probably there’s an affinity there. More white-faced robins were seen along the road and red-cheeked parrots flew overhead.

We worked hard for yellow-legged flycatcher and northern scrub-robin to no avail. With the plan to have dinner at the Portland Roads café and spotlight our way back to the cabins after dinner, we set off for Portland Roads mid-afternoon. Rose-crowned fruit-doves called from the mangroves and we had great scope views of fawn-breasted bowerbird in the same area that I found a bower many years ago. Viewed at dusk from the café’s balcony overlooking the water, a very large saltwater crocodile idled by.

Spotlighting started well with a Papuan frogmouth before we’d left Portland Roads but after that, it was lean pickings. We used to run camping tours to Iron Range back in the 1990s and would see lots of large-tailed nightjars but not even one tonight. Mystery as to what’s happened to them. A young amethyst python was spotlighted. A brief view of a mammal in the heathland between Portand Roads and Iron Range that I think was a rufous bettong although Menkhorst’s distribution map has it not occurring this far north. Added a couple of bush stone-curlew to the day’s list.

Day 12
Iron Range
With our days now numbered in Iron Range we didn’t let drizzling rain curtail our birding. First to Lockhart River township to check out the palm cockatoos that feed under the trees near the supermarket, but it proved too wet even for them. We saw one bird — flying away. The old sewage works offered up a dozen or so Australasian grebe. A fawn-breasted bowerbird called in a patch of rainforest across the road. We searched unsuccessfully for the bower but found instead three Papuan frogmouths. A return to the West Claudie River for the northern scrub-robin resulted in some of the group seeing one cross the track.  Red-cheeked parrots again were flying overhead and we saw a perched female eclectus parrot. The morning’s best birding was had as we headed back to Lockhart River for lunch. The Gould’s bronze race of little bronze-cuckoo was seen at Claudie River and a bit further along, an early returning dollarbird, and further along again, a pair of palm cockatoos feeding beside the road.

We’ returned to Gordon Creek, having had a tip-off that double-eyed fig-parrots were feeding near the bridge; and so they were. Walking further on, towards Portland Roads, we had better views of magnificent riflebird and another frilled-neck monarch, and briefly yellow-breasted boatbill.

We spotlighted the Iron Range again tonight, starting off well with three Papuan frogmouths in as many kilometres from the airport. Next, we tried the rainforest for marbled frogmouth. We came up trumps with a great view of the female. Out in the heathland east of the rainforest, we were mainly hoping for large-tailed nightjar; no luck on that front but we scored a trifecta of frogmouths for the night with a tawny. This is the only place in Australia where three frogmouth specues are present. We headed back into the rainforest to look for cuscus. It took some effort but eventually we managed a single southern common cuscus. Gone are the days when you could have multiple sightings of both species of cuscus in the one night from your vehicle.

Tawny frogmouth, Iron Range, 22 July 2015

Day 13.
Next morning we returned to Gordon creek hoping for sightings of the few species still missing and better views of others. We located a fruiting fig not far off the road that had lots of birds feeding in it. These included many fig birds but also a party of trumpet manucode. Nearby we had both rose-crowned and superb fruit-doves. Back along the road, a small group of palm cockies came through the rainforest, possibly the first I had ever seen inside the rainforest. We also managed fairy gerygone with green-backed honeyeater in tow. It was back to Lockhart River for our final lunch as a group and to get Anwyn, Judy and Neil to Lockhart River Airport, a stone’s throw from our accommodation.

We worked hard for birds but ultimately I was pleased with the tour. Yellow-legged flycatcher proved elusive but we’ll get it next time!

white-lipped treefrog Iron Range, 22 July 2015

Post tour
Day 13
Lockhart River to Archer River roadhouse.
It was about 2 pm when we left the airport and started the journey back but not before John and I had a fawn-breasted bowerbird feeding in a fruiting tree right behind our cabin. This tree was full of flying-foxes of a night but I never able to get a good enough look to see what species they were. A new trip bird in the guise of a beautiful female peregrine falcon was perched in a tree along the side of the road not far east of Archer River roadhouse.

Day 14
Archer River roadhouse to Kingfisher Park, Julatten.
With Trisha leading and John Nevinson and me bringing up the rear we made tracks for Julatten. In the Bamboo Range, north of Musgrave, I glimpsed a Cape York rock-wallaby among the boulders. A search didn’t reward us with a better view.

Lunch was angst-ridden. I was characteristically blasé with the location of our meeting place for lunch, suggesting to Trisha, who was travelling alone, that she stop at about lunchtime, beside a stream that had a picnic area and before Laura. She found a picnic table, beside the Kennedy River, about thirty kilometres from Laura. Unfortunately John and I didn’t find it. While the sign saying picnic area was, in retrospect quite obvious, the picnic area itself was hidden. John and I went to Laura on what is probably the worst bit of the Peninsula Development Road and then retraced our steps to Kennedy River before making radio contact with Trisha. Trisha had not had a good morning, experiencing for the second time on the trip the idiosyncrasy of “the boss’s” Nissan dualcab. She would have been out on the road to flag us down if not having felt that etiquette in these situations demanded she chat to the good Samaritans who jump-started her vehicle.

John and I still had unfinished business with squatter pigeon, which we missed on the way up. We came upon a dam in the hills, south of Lakeland, and on checking it out, found at least forty squatter pigeons. Our last stop of the day produced the beautiful dark form of brown treecreeper.

We had dinner down at the Mt Molloy pub before heading back to Kingfisher Park.

Day 15

Julatten to Atherton Tablelands to Cairns.

John still had a few birds to try for before we hit Cairns and the flight back to Melbourne that evening. The targets were white-browed robin, a male golden bowerbird, tooth-bill bowerbird, rufous owl and cassowary. After some local info from Lloyd we tried a couple of locations near Mt Molloy for white-browed robin and came up trumps at both spots. We returned to Mt Hypipamee for the bowerbirds. On driving in to the picnic area carpark, an immature cassowary was strolling about. People were sensible around the cassowary; no one approached it too closely or alarmed it. The cassowary was, in turn, calm; only being startled if a car drove in the entrance road too fast. A strategically placed speed hump would help the traffic slow down before reaching the picnic area. No bowerbirds were seen but we were happy with the day’s two new birds, which brought John’s new birds tally to sixty with a few subspecies thrown in. We dropped the car back to Meteor and took a taxi to the airport.

White-browed robin, 25 July 2015


1. The “boss’s” car’s idiosyncrasy was that when you opened any of its doors, the lights would come on. Not just the parkers, the lights. Leave the door open for five minutes and the battery would be dead. Problematic for someone who needs to unload a lot of food and gear in setting up picnic lunches and is used to leaving car doors open when organising meals.

2. The situation with Trisha’s first dualcab vehicle when we set off from Kingfisher Park was that it had been subjected to ”rodent attack”. Kingfisher Park is great but never park a vehicle there overnight without being armed with camphor or mothballs (apparently rats don’t like them). The other trick is to leave your bonnet up. An expensive lesson to learn as Meteor’s vehicle insurance didn’t cover “rodent attack”.


Juvenile cassowary Mt Hypipamee 25 July 2015

Checklist of species seen on 2015 Atherton Tablelands and Iron Range tour

Atherton Tablelands and Iron Range 2015 photos
2016 Atherton Tablelands & Iron Range itinerary