Thursday, September 24, 2015

Lockhart River and Iron Range

Map from the local travel brochure 

On the Monday morning after our stay at Julatten we arrived at the Cairns airport, returned our rental car and waited for the Skytrans flight to Lockhart River. This is not your normal airline because it is owned by locals to service their remote communities on Cape York and today the plane stopped at two small towns on our way north, Kowanyama and Pormpuraaw. We flew low and had excellent views of this lightly inhabited area of Australia before arriving in the middle of the day at Lockhart River (LR).
Landing at Lockhart River. Photo Barb Williams

Airport building built in 1942

Things happen slowly around LR and we learnt this when we asked how to get our rental car. It should have been at the airport, we thought, but the owner had forgotten the booking and we had to wait for about an hour while someone found him and he arrived. He was a lovely guy and very relaxed and after we had signed some forms he drove us back to where he had been working and then handed us the keys.
Joy and I walking from the airport to our accommodation which is just to the left of us. Photo Barb Williams

There is only one supermarket in town and as we checked the shelves to stock up for lunch and breakfast essentials a helpful local said "check the use by dates" and sure enough just about everything on the shelves was at or past its use-by date.
Fawn-breasted Bowerbird in Lockhart River

Fawn-breasted Bowerbird in Lockhart River

We stayed at the cabins at the airport and they are really good with all the cooking and bedding you need for a comfortable stay. The airport was built in 1942 as a US bomber base and all the cabins have been named after the B 24 Liberator bombers that were based there. We stayed in big Emma and when I went and browsed in Google I even found a photo of her.
Our cabin, Big Emma, and rental car

Big Emma and her crew. Sadly she crashed during a storm in New Guinea and all on board were killed. Photo from Google.
Bombers on the runway at Lockhart River, 1942.  Photo from Google
"The Dude" in flight. Another B 24 that has a cabin named after it at Lockhart River. The emblem on the nose is a top hat, and a pair of white gloves on a swagger stick. Photo from Google.

The joy of staying at LR is that it is in easy driving range of the Iron Range National Park as well as Portland Roads and Chilli Beach. The road condition varies with the weather but while we were there they were good with manageable corrugations and a few scattered potholes. The road passes through various habitats but the best stretch is where it is in the rainforest.
Female Eclectus Parrot in nest hole. Female is bright red and male is bright green

Chestnut-breasted Cuckoo

Northern race of the Australian Brush-turkey with a purple collar rather than the yellow one the southern birds have.

In the rainforest we came across wonderful birds such as Northern Scrub-robin, Green-backed Honeyeater, Chestnut-breasted Cuckoo, Frill-necked Monarch and Red-cheeked Parrot, Eclectus Parrot and Black Butcherbird. We even had one of those "OMG!!" moments when we entered the forest road one evening and a Cassowary walked across the road in front of us. I have seen Cassowary down around the Cairns area but they seem sort of tame because people know where they are and they are seen regularly. This bird in Iron Range however was truly wild. With a bright blue head and neck and standing over 2 metres tall it walked across the road and we gasped in awe! It was large and brightly coloured so we believe it was a female in breeding plumage. This was one moment I will never forget.
White-faced Robin

Green-backed Honeyeater

Sadly on our first afternoon I accidently left my camera in the cabin and missed a really special events. We had been told where an Eclectus nest hole was and as were drove up we could hear the birds calling. As we watched a male flew in and called from a branch. He was soon joined by a female, then another male arrived, then another, then a second female. In the end there were two bright red females and 5 bright green males all calling and displaying around the nest hole. It was a perfect camera moment and mine was in the cabin. Cry.
Northern Scrub-robin on the rainforest floor

Trumpet Manucode high in the rainforest canopy

The elusive Red-cheeked Parrot also put on a special display for us. We had stopped beside the road as we tried and failed to find a Yellow-billed Kingfisher when I caught movement high in an emergent tree. I put my binoculars on the spot and saw a Red-cheeked Parrot. I swapped to my camera for a shot of this rarely seen bird and saw that there was a male and a female so I started taking pictures. Much to my surprise the two birds started to court and over 20 minutes I took 200 photos as the birds courted and then mated. When they finished and the male flew off followed by the female I took a deep breath and sighed as I realised what I had been privileged to see. Mating Red-cheeked Parrots in the wild! That was special.
Red-cheeked Parrots

Male feeding female in courtship before mating

At one point we met a researcher from Melbourne University and she put us onto some great reptiles and gave me a very special non-birding sighting. Ever since I was about 10 and I saw a colour drawing of a Spotted Cuscus in a book I had wanted to see one. Our new friend stopped us beside the road and pointed up into the trees and there it was. Sadly it didn't have spots but it was a Cuscus and one more childhood dream was realised. Sigh. I have seen a Cuscus; it took about 60 years but there it was!
Spotted Cuscus, sadly without spots

Green Python, Morelia viridis. A rare python of the Iron Range area.

The rest of our stay consisted of driving and birding along various roads, including the road to the local dump where we found Fawn-breasted Bowerbirds, until it was time to join the group and head for Portland Roads and our boat. My bird count was 76 but in Iron Range it is the quality of the birds, not the quantity that is spectacular.
Male Olive-backed Sunbird at Portland Roads

Female Olive-backed Sunbird at Portland Roads


Walking along the road through the rainforest

A Ulysses Butterfly. They flew very high near the top of the canopy and so were very hard to  get a photo but I just love the shape of this one.
 Bare-backed Fruit Bat

Watching the Burton's Snake-lizard

Burton's Snake-lizard, Lialis burtonis.

Giant White-tailed Uromys (Rat) ,Uromys caudimaculatus

Wood Frog

Australian Scrub Python, Morelia kinghorni.

Waiting to leave for the bus to take us to Portland Roads and the Raine Island trip


  1. Nice one Jenny. That brings back fond memories. But is your flycatcher not a female Leaden? Have a look at the tail. Greg

  2. Loved reading your blog Jen. You got to see some impressive birds. Seeing the Southern Cassowary sounded truely great, one of those special birding moments that can't be planned. I also liked the extra details about the WW II planes. Sadly, Papua New Guinea is still a very dangerous place to fly with weather conditions and steep mountains according to a TV program I watched recently. All the best, Patrick