It was midday when we finally arrived at Kakadu. Though the 4 hour trip was somewhat draining (more so for our esteemed driver Sam) the sight of the brilliant topographical variation in the form of large rocky hills and ridges was more than enough to send an electrifying wave of energy through each of us. We were to camp out in this magnificent national park for 3 nights and experience a barrage of new and exciting ecosystems, giving us the wonderful opportunity not only to identify birds, but to see other forms of wildlife not necessarily present back at the farm. From the tree frogs and geckos hanging out in our [limited] camp ground facilities to the plethora of wild birds, we were to have an excellent time in this place. During the daylight we hiked various trails walking up to 15 km a day, and at night we braved an onslaught of buzzing and bloodsucking ‘Mozzies’ (some species of which none of us had previously encountered) all while feeding from cans and easy to prepare foods. Though simple (and my first real experience camping), I was quickly able to adapt and thoroughly enjoyed the time spent so close to nature. Within those 3 days we were able to explore 5 out of the 6 major habitats of Kakadu (a fairly representative sample of the top end ofAustralia):
Savanna Woodlands – Also the best way to describe the area we are so familiar with at Coomalie, this habitat is characterized by sparsely distributed, fire adapted eucalypts and palms and is dominated by a variety of quickly growing grasses. We were able to see many of the same species of birds we see on a daily basis including Sulfur-crested Cockatoos, Red-tailed black Cockatoos, Red-necked Lorikeets, Varied Lorikeets, Red-backed fairy wrens, Willie Wagtails, Flycatchers, multiple species of Honeyeaters, and much more. The area is also populated by termite mounds of varying size.There were two non-avian species theoretically found in this environment that I was hoping to see; Goannas (a large Australian monitor lizard) and Frilled-neck lizards. Unfortunately we were unable to sight either one of these magnificent reptiles, and the search continues. We did however stumble upon a large group of feral pigs which was most definitely an interesting sight.
Stone Country – As the title would suggest, stone country is scattered with intermediate to large rock based substrate. These are the areas in which rock Wallabies and Rock-Pigeons can be found. One of the memorable sightings in this area was, surprisingly, that of a lone Jabiru as the silhouette of the large Australian stork could be seen in the distance high on a cliff-face.
Floodplains and Billabongs – Billabongs are small to large isolated bodies of water that were at one point connected to a stream or river. As the dry season progresses and flowing water systems are dried up, billabongs scatter the landscape of Northern Territory Australia. They are home to a variety of water birds including three species of Ibis, Brolga, Magpie Geese, Shelducks, Whistling ducks, and Jabiru. Some of our more notable sightings included Estuarine Crocodiles (or Salties), Royal spoonbills, and of course Jacannas. Jacannas are an extremely fascinating water bird that feeds from the surface of the water; they are roughly in size and have disproportionately large talons which they use to skip along the water from lilly pad to lilly pad while foraging. Additionally, in the mud along the banks of water bodies we observed Mudskippers (small burrowing fish) popping their heads from the mud and skipping away into deeper waters.
Hills and Ridges – Kakadu is home to some of the most spectacular rock formations that I have ever seen. At Ubirr (the northern most accessible point of Kakadu) we were able to hike to the top of a large rock formation and watch the sun set over the horizon as the floodplains glistened in the distance. From our perch at the top of this rock we could hear the loud caws of Sulfur-crested Cockatoos and see the silhouettes of ducks and spoonbills flying into the sunset. It was truly a magnificent experience.
Monsoon Forests – My favorite of the 5 environments that we encountered, these are the closest thing to the popular idea of a tropical forest inNorthern Territory. Even during the dry season, these areas are lush and productive and serve as a home to an exciting set of organisms. It was in a Monsoon forest that Sam was able to spot an Azure Kingfisher and it was in the Monsoon forest that we were able to spot one of my favorite Australian birds. On our second afternoon in Kakadu, a friendly camping neighbor mentioned that she had sighted a Rainbow Pitta and was kind enough to give us direction (the birds are territorial, and we hoped to find one in the same location). As it goes, it quickly became our mission to positively identify a wild Rainbow Pitta. Though our first visit to this particular trail failed, we made the trip again on our last morning in Kakadu. Our hike was slow and meticulous, yet we still had trouble finding the elusive ground dwelling bird. As we turned the final corner of the trail, Sam caught a glimpse of a small patch of bright and luminous blue color; ALAS, a Rainbow Pitta was foraging in the detritus just off the path! After 15 minutes or so of observation, we were able to satisfactorily check this species off in our Birding field guides.
Overall, our time spent at Kakadu was an enriching and wholesome experience.