Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Bamaga and the Tip.

For a keen birder there is only one reason to go to the tip of Cape York in the middle of the wet season. To see a Red-bellied Pitta. This Pitta is a migratory bird from New Guinea to the tropical rain-forest down the east coast of Cape York from the tip to Iron Range, usually arriving during the wet season in December.
Our flight from Cairns to Bamaga
As we were going on a trip to the islands of Torres Strait Barb, Joy, Mel and I thought that this would be the perfect opportunity to see the Pitta. All reports said it was a risky business though because the roads around Bamaga are all dirt and February is the middle of the wet season; it was possible we would get there and not be able to drive out of town. The wet season can dump hundreds of millemetres of rain on Bamaga but this year the seasons seem to be in a real mess. When we got there at the end of February they had only had 10mm of rain where they should have had a couple of hundred. The result was that the roads were all open and dry and we had no trouble hunting for birds.
The Tip

Seisia bottom right, Bamaga bottom left. Injinoo top right and Umagico just below it and slightly left

We flew out of Cairns on the regular Skytrans flight that has the extra benefit in that it calls in at the small towns along the way. This time we stopped at Arukun and Weipa before arriving at Bamaga. We had a four wheel drive booked with Seisia Car Rental but after about half an hour at the airport there was no sign of it. The local police were there though and they helped as much as they could. Eventually a car arrived for a couple of off-duty nurses who also had to rent a car and I got a ride into Seisia and left the others stranded at the airport. At the back of the house where the cars are rented from I started filling out the paperwork and the rental guy drove of to get the rest of the group from the airport.

Great Knot coming into breeding plumage

Blue Argus

The rental car was a Toyota Troopy in the last days of its decline but it worked well and didn't let us down. We even got a discount on the very expensive rental because the a/c didn't work. First stop when we were all back together was our accommodation at the Seisia Camp Ground. It was a really good place to stay because Palm Cockatoos strutted around the street just outside and one night a Red-bellied Pitta was heard calling behind one of the A-frame cabins. It is also close to the wharf where we were to catch the Ferry to Horn Island, which we had to do to meet up with the start of the Torres Strait trip. While I am on the subject of accommodation etc the food at the Bamaga Resort is exceptional. There is also a small bakery near the supermarket that has very good crab meat pies and shrimp claws.
Left to right, Joy, Barb and Mel on their way to the Tip

Now onto the birds. We mainly explored the road north from Bamaga to the tip which was open and in very good condition. Our first trip was to the tip, of course, and we got to what I believe is called Frangipani Bay. From there it is a short walk to the actual tip and Barb, Mel and Joy headed that way while I went to the exposed low-tide sand flats and looked at waders. On the way back we stopped a number of times because all along the road there are old tracks along which one can wander into the forest.
Great Knot

Grey-tailed Tattler

The next day we spent hunting for the pitta. By doing research before we left we had three or four sites in the Lockerbie Scrub lined up as potentially good areas. As it turned out we met our friends on the road and they stopped us and said they had just seen one, right on the edge of the road. We drove to the spot and way off in the bush we could hear a pitta calling. It eventually came toward us and then walked parallel to the road. Seeing the bird was one thing as it bounced from fallen branch to branch, behind trunks, onto the ground, around rocks etc but getting a photo in the dark forest was too much of a challenge for me and I just enjoyed the pleasure of watching this wonderful bird.
Greater Sand Plover and Pacific Golden Plover

The Tip, the lighthouse and a wreck

This road through the Lockerbie Scrub bought many new species for Mel who had not birded this far north and we put in a lot of time on it. We did find one species that is always a challenge and that was the Yellow-billed Kingfisher. Surprisingly two of the more common birds were the Palm Cockatoos and the Buff-breasted Paradise Kingfisher. We saw the kingfisher regularly as they flew back and forward across the road in front of the car.
Greater Sand Plover

Grey Plover

South of Seisia are two small towns, Injinoo and Umagico, and half way between them are some sewage treatment ponds and there we found a pair of Spotted Whistling Ducks, only my second sighting of them and a special treat. There are also ponds between Seisia and Bamaga and we checked these too but without seeing anything special. We also drove the road south from Bamaga to the Jardine River crossing looking, without success, for Black-backed Butcherbird but did find White-streaked Honeyeater, which was a nice consolation prize. The last place we checked out thoroughly was the wrecked plane site on the way to the airport and here we found a good number of the smaller dry-country birds.
Pacific Golden Plover

Common Sandpiper

We only had 2 1/2 days at Bamaga and on the Friday morning we went down to the Seisia wharf and caught the ferry to Thursday Island and a second one to Horn Island where we were all meeting. My total species list for Bamaga was 88 and we didn't even do any night birding as we were too tired after long days of chasing everything else. Some special birds were Chestnut-breasted Cuckoo, Papuan Frogmouth, Lovely Fairy-wren, White-streaked Honeyeater, Tropical Scrubwren, Black Butcherbird, Northern Scrub-robin and the local race of Noisy Pitta. The Noisy Pitta turned out to be the bird that gave us the hardest time. We heard them often but they kept out of sight. It was a new bird for Mel so we followed one bird around and around in the rainforest as it called, skulked, scuttled along the ground, flew over our heads and generally made life hard.
Sign at the Tip showing Torres Strait and the Australian Islands

Sand flats at low tide at the Tip looking south

For anyone considering chasing the Red-bellied Pitta at Bamaga in the wet, it could be worth doing even during a normal wet year. The main roads in and out of Bamaga, including down to Injinoo and Umagico, are sealed and most birds special to the area could be located while doing short walks off these roads. For the Red-bellied Pitta, one was heard calling from the bush behind the A-frame cabins at the caravan park in Seisia while we were there so even that is possible without needing to go as far as the Lockerbie Scrub.
Common Eggfly

Black & White Tiger

To get in and out of Bamaga in the wet one can fly with either Skytrans or Rex from the main Cairns airport. Another option would be to fly with QANTAS to Horn Island where there are a couple of good hotels, and then take a ferry to Thursday Island to catch the ferry to Bamaga. This ferry runs on a regular schedule and the Seisia car rental people will meet you at the ferry with a car. And because Bamaga is a major tourist hub during the dry season, catering for tens of thousands of tourists each year they told us, they have every facility anyone could want, including crab meat pies, YUM.
Yellow-billed Kingfisher

Yellow-billed Kingfisher

The Lockerbie Scrub where we saw the Yellow-billed Kingfisher

Walking a track just south of Bamaga

Palm Cockatoo

Spotted Whistling-Duck

All images & text © Jenny Spry


  1. What a tremendous expedition. Love the wader and butterfly pics.

  2. Top trip and top post Jenny.