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Cape York Specialties - Dry Season

Tour Overview:

To the north of Cairns lies the jagged, tooth-shaped and very remote Cape York Peninsula, which almost links to New Guinea, and holds many similar species. Cape York is larger than the Australian state of Victoria, the American state of Utah, and the United Kingdom, all with a population of just 15,000 people split between two small towns; so....bloody remote. The Peninsula north of Cairns is dominated by open Eucalypt Savanna, Tetradonta (woodland) Savanna, and Tropical Rainforest, while there are areas of Tussock Grassland, pockets of Monsoon Vine Forest, Mangroves and even Heathland. The savannas are studded with large termite mounds, and in a very restricted part of the “cape” around Musgrave, these mounds become vital nesting sites for the highly endangered Golden-shouldered Parrot. The savannas also hold targets like Black-backed Butcherbird, Star Finch and the rarer 'chocolate' subspecies of Brown Treecreeper. The heathlands and monsoon forests have targets like the White-streaked Honeyeater and highly range-restricted Green-backed Honeyeater. Further north lies the largest tracts of Lowland Rainforest on the continent, around Lockhart River in the Iron Range. This area has a distinctly New Guinean feel to it, with primary rainforest species occurring that are found nowhere else in Australia, like Eclectus Parrot, Palm Cockatoo, Yellow-billed Kingfisher, Trumpet Manucode, and Magnificent Riflebird headlining. There is a mouth-watering list of other specialties in this area including Spotted Whistling-Duck, Chestnut-breasted Cuckoo, Red-cheeked Parrot, Black-eared Catbird, Fawn-breasted Bowerbird, Green-backed, Tawny-breasted and White-streaked Honeyeaters, Tropical Scrubwren, Black-winged and Frill-necked monarchs, White-faced Robin, Yellow-legged Flycatcher, and the skulking Northern Scrub-Robin. Anyone looking for a dose of New Guinea or a very high Australian list just has to come here, because none of the species listed above are found elsewhere in the country. However, the supporting cast are not to be scoffed at either, with Red Goshawk, Noisy Pitta, Buff-breasted Paradise-Kingfisher, Wompoo, Superb and Rose-crowned fruit-doves, Rufous Owl, Marbled and Papuan frogmouths, White-throated and Large-tailed nightjars, Lovely Fairywren, Yellow-breasted Boatbill, Red-browed Pardalote, White-eared Monarch and White-browed Robin all possible on this spectacular tour. Traveling in 4WD with just three clients in each car, this trip promises to be exclusive, comfortable and utterly wild.

Upcoming Departures:
Ready to Book?
10 - 18 October (US$4875 - $AUD 6500)
16 - 24 November (US$5175 - $AUD 6900)
Other Tour Information:

Length: 9 Days

Starting City: Cairns

Ending City: Cairns
Pace: Moderate
Physical Difficulty: Easy
Focus: Birding
Max group size: 6 + 2 leaders

Detailed Itinerary All page references are from the Habitats of the World: a field guide for birders, naturalists and ecologists

Day 1: Arrival in Cairns

After arrival in Cairns, the tour will begin with a post-lunch meeting at 1pm so that we can head out birding around this small city. Some of the sites we may visit include Centenary Lakes, Cairns Cemetery, and The Esplanade. Targets include waders and shorebirds along The Esplanade, such as Terek Sandpiper, Red-necked Stint, godwits, sand-plovers, gulls and terns. Cairns Cemetery can be a great spot for finding common Australian birds such as Willie-Wagtails, Rainbow Bee-eaters, Australasian Figbirds, Torresian Imperial-Pigeons, and White-breasted Woodswallows, as well as roosting Bush Thick-knees. Centenary Lakes could yield some of our first tropical species such as Orange-footed Scrubfowl, Australian Brush-Turkey, Dusky Myzomela, Brown-backed and Yellow Honeyeaters, Metallic Starling, Green Oriole, and Black Butcherbird. The night will be spent in Cairns. Depending on what is around, we will either visit Cattana Wetlands for waterbirds or some lowland rainforest.

Day 2: Cairns to Musgrave Station

We will move north out of the city of Cairns, stopping in on any Crimson Finches we can find north of Cairns as we do so. Our journey north will take us into the open Eucalypt Savanna (pp. 50) of the Outback near Mount Molloy and Mount Carbine where Blue-winged Kookaburra, Pale-headed Rosella, Red-winged Parrot, Yellow and Blue-faced honeyeaters, Grey-crowned Babbler, and Apostlebird may all feature. We will also check in on a local Great Bowerbird bower while there too. North of Mount Molloy we may also encounter one of the pairs of Australian Bustards that display on the downs there. Other birds that may feature include another Wet Tropics specialty, Lovely Fairywren, in addition to other species like Comb-crested Jacana, Common Cicadabird, Spectacled Monarch, and Shining Flycatcher. At the end of the day we will settle into a private station, Musgrave, the home of one of our most wanted species in the region…

Day 3: Musgrave Station to Lockhart River

While further up the peninsula we will be birding in Tropical Lowland Rainforest (pp. 35), on the way up, Musgrave Station is comprised of open country, with dry Eucalypt Savanna and Tetradonta Woodland savanna (pp. 53), significantly punctuated with large termite mounds, in which the rare Golden-shouldered Parrot nests. Finding this spectacular parrot will be our main priority in the morning. Black-backed Butcherbird, another Cape York specialty also occurs. Other standout birds that could feature around Musgrave, include Australian Bustard, Australian Pratincole, Black Falcon, and Channel-billed Cuckoo. In the afternoon, we will journey north to the legendary rainforest site of Lockhart River. We will spend four nights at the magnificent Green Hoose which is surrounded by Iron Range National Park.

Days 4-6: Lockhart River (Iron Range National Park)

Lockhart River is one of the most revered sites in northeast Queensland, and indeed, all of Australia. It’s bird list reveals why; there are many species best found there, which are specialties of the region, and give it a flavor of the densely forested tropical island of New Guinea to the north. For Australians looking to build a country list, this is a must do site. In the rainforest canopy, fruit doves occur, with three species at this site, Superb, Wompoo and Rose-crowned. However, the stars of the forest canopy are the parrots, not least the gargantuan Palm Cockatoo, which has no likeness on Earth. Red-cheeked Parrot are another noisy Cape York specialty. However, the prince among parrots in Cape York is arguably the Eclectus Parrot, with its strikingly different plumage between the sexes, the females being the brighter gender, vivid vermilion red and blue, while the males are less colorful, but no less striking being brilliant emerald green with a red bill. Among the raptors that haunt these forests are the abundant Grey Goshawk, and distinctly less common Red Goshawk, which is comfortably the rarest raptor in Australia, although this region has a higher hit rate than most! Down on the forest floor, some of the avian targets require more effort to find but getting a view of the crimson-bellied Papuan Pitta makes the effort all worthwhile, ranking as one of Australia’s most stunning birds. Another terrestrial bird, the Northern Scrub-Robin is also of interest down in the leaf-litter. The forest is home to two striking kingfishers, Yellow-billed, which in Australia is confined to this extremity, and the beautiful Buff-breasted Paradise-Kingfisher is a migrant that comes to breed in Cape York, having crossed the Torres Strait from its New Guinea wintering grounds.  Within the understorey we may find the Chestnut-breasted Cuckoo, one of the most distinctive sounds of Cape York, as well as the striking White-faced Robin. The forest is also home to a dazzling variety of monarchs, with five species occurring, including two specialties on our target list, Black-winged and Frill-necked Monarchs. As if that was not enough, these verdant rainforests are home to two species of bird-of-paradise found nowhere else in Australia, the Trumpet Manucode and Magnificent Riflebird, the latter restricted to this part of Australia only. Now all of this may sound daunting, but many of these birds will be seen without the grounds of the Green Hoose, so those people needing a little down time throughout the day will still be in the thick of it with Eclectus Parrots flying over, Tawny-breasted Honeyeaters feeding in the garden, and Yellow-billed Kingfishers calling from above the cafe'. In Mangroves (pp. 89) and areas outside the forest, other notable birds occur, like Mangrove and White-browed robins, and Fawn-breasted Bowerbird. Other specialties will be Tawny-breasted and Green-backed honeyeaters, and Yellow-legged Flycatcher. This is also a good site to venture out after dark, with an abundance of nightbirds in the area. Three nightjars occur, Spotted, White-throated and Large-tailed, as well as Rufous Owl, and both Marbled and Papuan frogmouths.

Day 7: Lockhart River to Musgrave

After some final birding around Green Hoose, we will head to the amazing heathlands of the higher-elevation areas of the Iron Range. Now this area looks like a Coastal Heathland (66) you expect to find in Tasmania, and seems completely incongruous surrounded by tropical rainforest. It appears as though this is a very new habitat here as there are no endemic birds to it, nor does it support heathland groundbirds such as heathwrens, fieldwrens or emu-wrens; still, an amazing place, and one where we search for the White-streaked Honeyeater. We then backtrack to Musgrave, giving further time, if needed for specialties around the drier country there. On the way we will target the cape race of the Pied Currawong; with its stocky bill, shorter tail and much more laborious flight it seems a prime candidate to be split into a separate species.  A single night will be spent in Musgrave.

Day 8: Musgrave to Cairns
We will travel south from Cairns, making stops for wherever we need the most birds. We will head into Lakefield National Park where we visit vast areas of Melalaueca Savanna (pp. 59) for Bar-breasted, Yellow and White-throated honeyeaters. We will also visit a truly impressive floodplain grassland riddled with massive termite mounds. that span as far as the eye can see. Here the target birds are Australian Pratincole and Black-breasted Kite with an outside chance of Star Finch. The final night will be spent in Cairns.

Day 9: DEPARTURES from Cairns

There is no birding on this day, so feel free to leave when it suits you.

Trip Considerations

PACE: The trip is not a particularly fast-paced trip. The travel days north and south require early starts, but when we are based in Lockhart River there is plenty of opportunity for down time if required. 

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: There are no strenuous walks on this tour, but it is very important that clients remain very well hydrated. Please understand that the front seat is only to be used by the guides when there is more than one, otherwise is rotated on a daily basis.  We cannot accept that any client reserves the front passenger seat even if they claim motion sickness. If sitting in the second row sometimes is going to be a major issue then please organize medication more consider a tour that does not require long car travel.


CLIMATE: The temperature is warm through the day with very light weight clothing required. During the evening a thin jacket may also be required. Even during the dry season some rain is to be expected, so a rain jacket is definitely required.


ACCOMMODATION: The accommodation on the way up and back from Iron range is pretty standard. The Green Hoose in Iron Range is simple yet spectacular in the mould of an up market rainforest lodge. You have a comfortable room with air-conditioning and wifi.


OTHER INFO: This trip is to an extremely remote part of the world. The only town we visit has a population of 900 people, and other than that it is a few road houses and bush. One we leave the Atherton Tablelands near Cairns, the cropland we see will be limited to about twenty minutes in nine days. We are entering aboriginal lands where the traditional owners have outlawed alcohol. For five days of the trip there will be no opportunities to purchase alcohol of any type, but we may be able to organise bringing in limited amounts of alcohol to the non-aboriginal lands.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: We include all guiding, food, entrance fees and transport.


WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Soft drinks, telephone, laundry, and other purchases of a personal nature.

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