User:JJ Harrison/Cairns report

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A Shy Albatross preparing to land

From the 28th of June until the 5th of July I spent time in the Cairns region photographing the birds and other wildlife. The trip was originally scheduled earlier, but was delayed because of the Chilean volcanic ash cloud. The weather was not favourable during the first few days of the trip and it was often pouring with rain. I travelled to the Great Barrier Reef on the first day, but the wind and swell made photography difficult. I then spent a few days around Daintree Village, taking a day trip to Cape Tribulation and a River Cruise. I then travelled further inland, to Julatten, where the habitat is drier and spent a few days there photographing Fauna. I’ve uploaded 40 images from the trip so far, of which 14 have been featured so far on the English Wikipedia. In almost all cases those images have greatly improved the quality of illustration in their respective articles. See below for more details.

I was fortunate to receive financial support for the trip in the form of a $1000 grant from Wikimedia Australia. I’ve used some of the money ($425) to purchase some additional camera batteries, a shotgun microphone, a second-hand 580ex flash, flash extender and external battery pack. I use fill flash for most of my photographs. The flash upgrade will help the flash keep up with the camera in burst mode, and provide a little extra peak power output. The shotgun microphone is directional, and will hopefully allow me to start recording bird calls, and considerably improve the audio for videos. The camera’s built in microphone is omni-directional, and picks up noise from the lens image stabiliser and background sources too easily.

I've also used some of the funds to fund a pelagic boat trip in September, which involved travelling 25-30km off the coast of Tasmania, beyond the continental shelf, to photograph sea birds. Because of the 2-3 meter swell, which eased in the afternoon, it was often difficult just to keep the subjects in the viewfinder. I managed to get good photos of Cape petrel, Brown Fur Seal, an immature Northern Giant Petrel, Shy Albatross, some Black-browed Albatross, and two species of Great albatross, the Southern Royal Albatross and the Wandering Albatross. The Wandering Albatross is perhaps the most famous, as it has the longest wingspan of any living bird, up to 3.5 meters! I only managed flight shots from the rear of the wandering albatross, so hopefully I will have better luck there next time. On the day I also saw Grey Petrel, Yellow-nosed Albatross, Common Diving Petrel, Great-winged petrel, Fairy Prion, Australasian Gannet as well as the more usual closer to land stuff, like White-bellied sea-eagle, Black-faced cormorant, Sooty oystercatcher, Crested tern and so on. There were a few seals on the Hippolyte rocks and one or two in the water too.

The remainder of the funds have been used to fund a November flight to Melaleuca, principally to photograph the Orange-bellied Parrot, which is on the brink of extinction. We didn't have any images of this species, and the total count of known wild birds, before the 2011 breeding season, was less than 25. It has been estimated that the bird will be extinct in the wild by 2015. The count is known since all but a few birds are banded at birth to allow identification. Volunteers place out supplementary feed at a table each morning and night, and then note which individuals are present by examining the bands with a spotting scope. People have been dropped into suitable habitat elsewhere in Tasmania by helicopter searching for other populations, but no birds have been found elsewhere. I tried to make this trip in early October, but unfortunately my flight was cancelled due to bad weather. I'm not surprised about the first flight - it rained each day and the wind was almost always roaring, making it difficult to hear bird calls. I also managed good photos of an Olive Whistler, Beautiful Firetail and Tasmanian Scrubwren. I saw quite a few Southern Emu-wren, but didn't get any photo opportunities. I went out searching for Eastern Ground Parrots a number of times, and heard many (they have a very distinctive call), but didn't see any; they enjoy hiding in the button grass!.

Photo Galleries[edit]

Detailed Trip Report[edit]

28 June[edit]

I spent most of the day travelling. I arrived in Cairns after dark. It was raining heavily; I collected the hire car and found my accommodation in Cairns.

29 June[edit]

I had an early morning start for a pre-booked trip to the barrier reef. I travelled to marlin wharf, boarded the Silver Swift and we departed. It was a wet and windy day, so the swell was quite significant. Many passengers on the boat were seasick during the 1.5 hour journey out to the reef.

The weather conditions made photography at the reef very difficult. The waves were moving me and the subjects back and forth a few meters at a time and the sediment had been stirred up, making visibility very poor. Several weak swimmers had trouble with the rough water. The best photo I managed was of a Red and Black Anenomefish. When I’ve the time, I still need to go through the other photos and upload anything that I feel would add to commons. At one point I was able to swim with a sea turtle, but had some trouble with the underwater enclosure; I couldn’t press the shutter button. Commons has many photographs of that species, so it was no great loss. With hindsight, I would have travelled on a different boat to Michaelmas Cay and photographed the birds at the large colony there, but I hadn’t expect the weather to be an issue given a few weeks of straight sunshine before the trip.

After returning to “dry” land I went for a walk along the Cairns esplanade. It was the wrong time of year for migratory waders, but during my research I’d heard reports of mangrove robins there. I chose to ignore a few common birds, like the Australian White Ibis and the Masked Lapwing, because it was getting dark, and I knew they were easy to acquire in many Australian cities. I spent some time photographing a Willie Wagtail near the shore, before spotting a few of the Mangrove Robins at about 6pm. I spent the next 45 minutes or so waiting patiently hoping for a good photograph. I had some luck and also got photos of a Yellow Honeyeater which briefly appeared. A cyclist stopped to talk to me for a bit during this time. I explained what I was photographing, and where I was uploading the pictures and talked to him a bit about Wikipedia, Wikimedia and Commons.

30 June[edit]

I needed to drive about two hours that day to Daintree Village. I first travelled to the Cairns Botanical Gardens to have a look around. The bird life was initially very quiet thanks to the heavy rain. I managed to spot a black butcherbird sitting on a stone in a stream, but the angle was such that I couldn’t photograph it. I also spotted a few Olive-backed sunbirds, but gave up on those because they were feeding high in the trees.

After not having so much success I walked to the centenary lakes, which was also quiet. I spotted a Radjah Shelduck which I photographed from across a narrow section of water. After walking half way around I spotted a juvenile Dusky Moorhen, and spent a bit of time photographing that. I continued on after that, briefly spotting a Yellow-billed Spoonbill before it disappeared. At around 11pm I spotted a Straw-necked Ibis, which I hadn’t seen before, so I spent quite a bit of time circling around that to get a favourable angle and take the photo. Shortly after that the sun started to poke through the clouds. I noticed a Rainbow Bee-eater pair landed on a drinking fountain.I waited until they had left before setting up nearby with my camera and waiting patiently. One returned, which I photographed, whilst the other remained in a tree, I then noticed a pair of Bush Stone-curlew in the undergrowth, as well as an Australian Brush-turkey. I decided to focus on the turkey and hoped that the Stone-curlew might come out after some time. I managed photos of both species. As the rain started again I decided that it was time to continue on towards Daintree Village. I stopped on the way at Port Douglas, mostly to buy food, but I didn’t see much of note there except a distant Brahminy Kite. I photographed a Dusky Moorhen on a pond near the outskirts.

After arriving at Daintree village I checked into my accommodation. Walking around the area I managed photos of Dusky Honeyeater, Olive-backed Sunbird and a Female Australasian Figbird. I noted a Little Kingfisher present at a pond, and spent a few hours in a hide in order to get some photographs. I heard a number of Wompoo Fruit Doves, but never got a clear sighting. I called it a day at around 5:30 as it was getting too dark to take pictures.

1 July[edit]

This was another very wet day. I decided to head to Cape Tribulation, particularly as I’d heard some reports of a good spot to see cassowaries. Unfortunately the heavy rain dampened bird activity and I didn’t see a whole lot, apart from a Superb Fruit Dove, some Gerygone, female Victoria's Riflebird and a Rufous Fantail. I managed decent photos of a Spectacled Monarch and a male Olive-backed Sunbird.

After about six hours in the rain I experienced a little camera trouble. It was behaving as if the shutter button was half depressed. I could still take photos, but I couldn’t change settings or review shots, and the camera was stuck focusing continuously. Fortunately I didn’t miss out on anything major. After returning to Daintree Village, I found a forest kingfisher, and spent some time to get a photograph of it. After it got dark I returned to my accommodation and spent about 45 minutes with a hairdryer, which fixed the camera.

2 July[edit]

I got up early to go on a dawn river cruise on the Daintree. Fortunately the weather had finally improved. Early on Spectacled Monarch and some Azure Kingfisher were sighted, but it was too dark to get decent photographs. As the light improved I got good photos of a number of species:

After the cruise I had some breakfast and spent a little time in Daintree village again. I managed to photograph a few more species including:

I then decided to head back towards Wonga Beach, and in particular stop at a Barramundi farm on the way. I was denied entry to the farm, but could see gull-billed tern, and black-winged stilt through the fence. I noticed that a number of sacred kingfishers were perching on the high fence posts. Using vegetation as cover I managed to get close enough to one for a decent shot, though they are quite shy.

I also noticed a few Black-fronted Dotterel were feeding in a wide muddy ditch on the side of the road. I circled widely around them to get the light on the right side before getting a few photos of those.

I then continued on to Wonga beach. There I located some White-breasted Woodswallow sitting on a fence. I photographed them from the car. Apparently they nest on the fest posts. I also managed a shot of a Spangled Drongo there.

Finally I returned to Daintree Village, where I spent some time trying to photograph the shy Cattle Egrets. In particular I managed a photo with a cow head as a background. After that the sun had departed, so it was time to call it a day.

3 July[edit]

Bower of a Great Bowerbird

It was time to travel inland to Julatten. The land gets much drier as you drive inland from the coast in the Cairns region, so the species found are very different. I stopped at Wonga again on the way to look for Beach Stone-curlew, but didn’t have any luck.

It was too early to check in when I arrived, so I travelled to Mount Malloy, as I’d heard reports of a Great Bowerbird bower there. I did manage to find a bower, but it was inactive and had fallen into disrepair. I spent some time trying to photograph a Blue-faced Honeyeater and Brown Honeyeater before continuing to Mount Carbine. I found an active bower there, as well as a bowerbird or two and some Pale-headed rosella.

I then returned to Julatten and checked into my accommodation. Wandering around the grounds there I spotted an Azure Kingfisher on a pond. I slowly put my hide into position at the other end, and then waited for a couple of hours to get a photograph. I also saw Spectacled Monarchs and Grey-headed Robin visit the water hole to bathe, but didn’t manage any good photos as it was very dark. I’d really like to experiment with setting up remote flashes for such dark situations, but taking them travelling is logistically difficult.

I had a look at some of the birds near the creek as the sun was going down, but it was too dark to take photos. There was also a Papuan frogmouth in a Mango tree, but the photo wasn’t as good as the one taken in the Daintree.

4 July[edit]

In the morning I drove south as far as Mareeba, stopping at a few places on the way. There were quite a few birds at Lake Mitchell, but I didn’t find anything close to camera range. Returning to Julatten I decided to have a look at Mount Lewis. I had to walk up the mountain as my car wasn’t capable of following the trail. Among other things I saw Lovely Fairywren, Forest Kingfisher and Blue-winged Kookaburra but again I didn’t have much luck photographically. Back in Julatten I spent some more time with some local birds, and managed to get photos of the Pale-yellow Robin, Graceful Honeyeater, Grey-headed Robin, and Brown Honeyeater. It soon got dark after that. After cooking dinner I found a White-lipped Tree Frog with a small torch and photographed it. I spent some time speaking with Rod Warnock (, who expressed interest in releasing his photographs under an open licence. I’ve since sent him an email, but I expect that he is probably still travelling around.

5 July[edit]

This day was spent returning to Hobart.