A birder’s eye view of Kakadu: ‘Don’t give up until you go to bed’

7th October, 2021.      //   General Interest  // 

An Australian azure kingfisher perched over water.

There are two rules you need to follow on board,” Luke Paterson informs me as I step on to a large flat-bottomed boat. The first is to keep my limbs inside to avoid tempting the myriad crocs that call these waters home, and the second is just as important: never use the t word.

“In the birding community, birders are enthusiasts,” he explains, “but twitchers are real list tickers who’ll drop anything at the promise of seeing a rare bird.” Though some obsessives self-identify as twitchers, they’re few and far between and the consensus in our group is that placing too much focus on list-ticking saps much of the joy from this pursuit.

A lifelong bird enthusiast, Paterson looks like he was born in an Akubra and sports a broad smile that is undimmed by the oppressive heat of the build up and the regular pre-dawn starts required to lead tours through Kakadu national park. Today he’s taking us through the maze of channels that cross a broad floodplain and before we launch he’s already begun pointing out birds lining the banks.

For an hour we watch azure kingfishers with orange bellies and iridescent royal blue backs pose obligingly in the sun as fantails and flycatchers pirouette through the undergrowth nearby. It’s proof that a bird need not be rare to get birders excited. Our boat is captivated by what we see until Paterson suggests visiting a different spot. “Oh yes,” says Robin, whose hat is adorned with emu, buzzard and cockatoo feathers. “I tend to get distracted by whatever bird is in my binoculars.”

He tells me that it was a trip to Kakadu 30 years ago that transformed an interest into an abiding passion. “Birding is really an excuse to explore nature and look around you,” he explains. “Even if you’ve seen a bird before, there’s always some new behaviour to observe, whether they’re courting or preening or sitting on the nest.” Over the years he’s spotted more than 600 of Australia’s 828 bird species, and hopes to add several more to his list on this trip.

We keep our eyes peeled as we follow a narrow waterway lined with impenetrable groves of bamboo and flakey melaleucas that leave a sweetly medicinal perfume in the air. Inscrutable reptilian eyes watch us from the murky waterline and the chittering of crickets is punctuated by the deep hoot of a barking owl before Paterson suddenly cries out.

“Look at the size of that beak folks, what a stonker!” He’s pointing at a great-billed heron, a giant bird with a spear-like bill that stalks along the waterline. It’s a “lifer” for two in our group, the first time they have ever seen one. The excited chatter continues as it darts out of eyesight but Paterson ensures us that we’re not done yet. “You never know what you’ll see on the way home,” he says before sharing his mantra: “ don’t give up until you go to bed.”

Sure enough we soon spot another heron mid-meal, head back as it swallows a freshwater cray whole. It seems oblivious to a crocodile gliding through the water towards it, until it’s just a few metres away. Suddenly the rangy heron realises the imminent danger and turns. Its feathers spring up, standing on end as it emits a series of booming, guttural grunts. A tense standoff lasts for what seems like minutes as the two creatures eye each other cautiously until the croc decides it has a better chance launching at a passing fish. “That’s National Geographic stuff,” Paterson says.

It’s a sentiment echoed by the other guests. “I’ve been in Darwin for 20 years,” says Sharon, an amateur photographer who has turned increasingly to birding in the last few years as Covid made travel challenging. “This has got me out into places that I’d never been before.”

“You never know if you’ll find what you’re looking for but you’ll always see something.”

Travelling with birders – and Paterson in particular – is a lesson in landscapes, seasons and flora. Though every conversation carries the risk of abrupt termination by the call of a channel-billed cuckoo or the cascading chitter of a whistling kite.

Over several days we visit dry stone country and monsoon forest, receding billabongs and croc-filled wetlands in search of the 280 species found here. By the final morning, we’re walking slowly between chest-high stalks of dried yellow grass with every sense on high alert. Ancient pillars of sandstone glow in the early morning sun as the mechanical buzz of cicadas rises and crashes over us in waves.

Suddenly there’s a flash of movement ahead. Binoculars and camera lenses are instantly deployed. Following their lead I see a small, nondescript bird with tan feathers and a slightly curved beak that falls squarely into the category of LBB – an unidentifiable little brown bird – until Paterson informs me it’s a dusky honeyeater.

“I didn’t know what it was either,” confesses Bernie, who has come up from Katherine for Kakadu Bird Week.

We watch as it bounces between branches like a jack in the box until a family of walkers barrels down the path towards us. “What are you looking at?” they ask, peering towards the tree, before quickly deciding it doesn’t look that exciting after all. In a few seconds they’re rushing back to the comfort of their air-conditioned car and a sense of calm returns.

“You’d think hiking was a good way to see birds,” Bernie says, “but you end up going too fast and looking at your feet the whole time.

“I like birding because it’s a chance to slow down and really enjoy the landscape.”

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