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Queensland's Outback: Mining for Grasswrens

Tour Overview:

Western Queensland is considered off the beaten track for many bird tours, but has some rich offerings, with no less than three grasswrens of interest on this short tour that visits the odd spinifex grassland habitat. Rusty, Kalkadoon and Carpentarian grasswrens are all possible by combining visits to the mining town of Mount Isa with the “dinosaur capital” of Winton. Along with these prized birds, we will also seek out the local Hall’s Babbler, spectacular Painted Finch (Firetail), Spinifex Pigeon, Spinifexbird, the handsome Rufous-crowned Emuwren, endangered Black-throated Finch and some more widespread, iconic Aussie species, like Emu and Budgerigar, in addition to Australian Bustard. Passing through an area of rainforest at the start of the trip also adds in an opportunity for some rainforest species like the giant Southern Cassowary and striking Pied Monarch.

Upcoming Departures:

15 - 23rd August (US$ 5250 $AUD 7000) 
1-9 October (US$ 5250 $AUD 7000)
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Detailed Itinerary

Length: 9 Days

Starting City: Cairns

Ending City: Cairns
Pace: Moderate/Intense
Physical Difficulty: Moderate
Focus: Birding
Max group size: 8 + 1 leader

Other Tour Information:

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.

Day 2: Cairns to Charters Towers 

On this morning we will head south of Cairns, making a special stop on a rainforest-clad beach, where Southern Cassowary sometimes boldly feed alongside the roads. This area south of Cairns offers some lowland rainforest birding to break the journey south, in stark contrast to the Outback tropical savanna that we enjoy later. Some of the rainforest birds we may encounter include some real crackers, like Spotted Catbird, Pied and Spectacled monarchs, Double-eyed Fig-Parrot, Wompoo and Superb fruit-doves, Yellow-breasted Boatbill, as well as Black Butcherbird. Barred Cuckooshrike and Pale-yellow Robin are also possible. In drier country, towards the end of the journey, we may start seeing some birds more typical of the Queensland Outback, like Great Bowerbird, Black-faced Woodswallow, Red-winged Parrot, Pale-headed Rosella, and Apostlebird. A night will be spent in Charter Towers.

Day 3: Charters Towers to Winton

We will drive west out of Charters Towers to Winton for a two-night stay, where our Grasswren exploration will begin. Two nights will be spent in Winton.

Day 4: Winton

This area in the Channel Country is most famous for cattle and sheep farms and its considerable dinosaur fossil finds than birds, but it holds some highly-desirable ones within easy reach. One of the most localized species in play is the Rusty Grasswren, sometimes referred to as “Opalton Grasswren”, a very recent split from Striated Grasswren, so now an extremely local endemic found within the clumps of spinifex grass near town. There are plenty of other birds to search for in this area though, including the local Hall’s Babbler, reclusive Rufous-crowned Emuwren, and striking terrestrial Chestnut-breasted Quail-Thrush. Australian Bustards roam the Outback, as do Emus, while Spinifex Pigeon scurry among the rocky outcrops, and Hooded Robins occur in this sparsely wooded country. Other birds that we might see include a good mix of woodswallows, with Masked, White-browed and Little all occurring. We will be on the lookout for any blooming shrubs and trees that attract nectar-thirsty honeyeaters, like Grey-headed, and sometimes the nomadic  Black and Painted honeyeaters too. In this season we might find active groups of Crimson Chats working the low shrubs, and Orange Chats can be around in some years too. A distinctive sound of this landscape are the numerous Crested Bellbirds. Other possible finds could be Bourke’s Parrot, or flocks of Budgerigars or Cockatiels, Spotted Bowerbird, delightful Purple-backed and White-winged fairywrens, and the dry-country-loving Red-browed Pardalote and Red-backed Kingfisher. Raptors overhead could include Little Eagles, while Zebra Finches are frequent in the grasslands. “Waterbirds” can also be found, including Australian Pratincole, Black-fronted Dotterel and Brolga.  A second night will be spent in Winton.

Day 5: Winton to Mount Isa

After another morning in Winton, we move north to Mount Isa for a two-night stay.


Day 6: Mount Isa

With a full day (and a morning) here, we will have plenty of time to search for our main targets and their supporting cast. Top on the agenda will be tracking down Mount Isa’s two most famous avian residents, the Kalkadoon and Carpentarian grasswrens. Among the other birds in this area though are some other highly-desired species, like Black-tailed Treecreeper in the Tetradonta Woodland, and rocky areas with stands of spinifex grass that hold the stunning Painted Finch, the comical Spinifex Pigeon and Spinifexbird. The Cloncurry form of Australian Ringneck also occurs, as does Purple-necked Rock-Wallaby. Another night will be spent in Mount Isa.


Day 7: Mount Isa to Karumba

After another morning among the wattle scrub, red rocks, and spinifex of Mount Isa, we move north to Karumba for the night, right on the edge of the Gulf of Carpentaria. A single night will be spent in Karumba. There should be some time in the late afternoon to begin exploring this area of tropical savanna, for species like, Yellow-tinted, Rufous-throated and White-gaped honeyeaters, Diamond Dove, Red-browed Pardalote, and Star Finch, which are characteristic of this area and the Northern territory to the west.

Day 8: Karumba to Cairns via Georgetown

In the morning, we will focus on the coastal mangroves around Karumba, before driving east towards Cairns via Georgetown. A boat trip will be taken to search for mangrove specialists, like Red-headed Myzomela, White-breasted Whistler, Australian Yellow White-eye, and Mangrove Fantail. There will also be a chance for other interesting wetland birds like Rajah Shelduck, Sarus Crane, Brolga, Pink-eared Duck, and Far Eastern Curlew. During the journey eastwards, we make a short stop around Georgetown in the heart of Black-throated Finch country. The area also holds Masked and Zebra finches, and yet more waterbirds. We arrive in Cairns in the evening, a little later than usual (around 8pm), due to the length of the drive, and spend the final night in Cairns.

Day 9: Departures from Cairns

There is no birding on this day, and so you are free to leave whenever is most convenient.

Trip Considerations

PACE: Moderate. This tour does target some special birds that require some early starts, at around 5:30am, and some field breakfasts too. There are a number of long drives on this tour, with some short sections of these on good, unpaved roads. A 4 x 4 vehicle however is not required.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: The walks on this trip are mostly easy, not involving any steep gradients or elevations, but will be on rocky and uneven ground at times. The toughest aspect of this trip is the climate, being very hot and dry much of the time.

CLIMATE: The climate on this trip will be mostly a hot dry heat in the Outback, which forms the main part of the tour. In this season, the daytime temperatures range from around 15-32 C (60-90 F), with little rain likely. Around Cairns, and on the second morning the humidity will be high compared with the rest of the tour.

ACCOMMODATION: For the sections outside of Cairns we will use the best accommodations available - medium level motels - in Cairns and Hughenden we will use good hotels. All lodgings have full time electricity and hot water and en-suite bathrooms. Internet will only be available in Cairns and Hughenden.

Other Information

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required for entry into Australia, which must be valid for at least six months beyond your departure. All visitors must obtain a visa or travel authorization in advance, however, this can usually be done online fairly painlessly; check the Australian immigration website, or ask our office staff for help if you are unsure. For the latest Covid restrictions, please consult the Queensland government website

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Accommodation from night of day 1 through to night of day 8; meals from dinner on day 1 to dinner on day 8; safe drinking water between meals; most hotels in Australia provide a kettle and tea and coffee; Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from the afternoon of day 1 to the evening of day 8; transfer by taxi to the airports at the start and end of the tour; ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary in a suitable vehicle driven by the tour leader; entrance fees to all birding sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the Tropical Birding tour leader; international flights; excess baggage fees; any Covid test fees; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, internet, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.

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