Planning A Birding Adventure To Australia’s Northern Territory (Top End)

Now that you know how to use miles to get to Australia and use Darwin as a gateway city, what you really want to know is how to get out in the bush where the birds are!  Fortunately, Australia is an amazingly easy country to travel around in.  It’s safe, everyone speaks English and the tourism infrastructure is excellent!  All you need is a well-researched plan and a car to get there.

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MAKE YOUR PLAN

1. Determine what species of birds you want to see. Bear in mind that no matter what species you are targeting, you will find many other species in the same location. In my case, although I was really keen to see wild Parrots, I was very happy to see that other species such as Rainbow Pittas, Gouldian Finches and Bowerbirds were also within reach.

2. Use guide books such as “Parrots of the World” by Joseph Forshaw and “The Field Guide to the Birds of Australia” by Graham Pizzey & Frank Knight to determine where these species can most easily be found. These books have maps to help you formulate an itinerary. Although I prefer Kindle/eBooks for casual reading, with a field guide you really need the hard copy to be able to compare the birds you see to the images in the book. Don’t worry if you don’t know all the species. As long as you get a decent photo, you can always look them up! You can buy these books on Amazon.com if you don’t have them already.

3. Use other internet resources to find out where the birds have been seen most recently. These may be Facebook or Twitter contacts, blogs like Miles to the Wild or trip reports on Surfbirds. Google the scientific name of the bird + “report”. For example if you Google “Lophochroa leadbeateri sightings” you get this. If you have destinations in mind from researching the field guides, you can get better results by Googling “Lophochroa leadbeateri Bowra” such as this.

4. Use eBird searches on the species to see where other people have reported them.  I now have a full tutorial on how to use eBird to plan a trip.   Spend more time if the destination has more of the species you are targeting.

This step can be very time consuming as you need to research each species you want to see individually but it is well worth it as you will save lots of time once you are traveling and you can travel independently which saves you lots of money and gives you more choices as to when, where & how you want your birding adventure to happen!

5.  Visit some local birding websites.  The Northern Territory ones are especially helpful and I can recommend:

Experience the Wild

NT Bird Specialists

Book:  Top End Birdwatching written by Mike Reed.  I found it for sale at the Katherine Museum or contact NT Bird Specialists.  Wonderful book and helped me find lots of birds and identify them from the photos.  Plus it doesn’t weigh much!

Laurie Ross

Once I did all the research, this is the itinerary I put together which gave a fair shot at all my target birds.  I will go into depth on each hotspot in turn throughout this series.

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LOGISTICS

You will definitely need a car, as this is a huge chunk of territory to cover and public transport is very sparse.  One thing to note about the Northern Territory is that cars don’t have unlimited kilometers like in most other Aussie cities and the per kilometer cost will probably double your rental car budget.  For this trip, since I happen to be a member of RACQ (the local auto club) I got 15% discount on Thrifty Car Hire-including the rental, the kilometers and insurance.  My own GPS covers all of Australia so I brought it along.  The itinerary above is all on tarred roads so a 2WD car is fine but if you want to include places like the Marrikai Track you will need a 4WD.  Always get quotes from several car companies and use whatever discounts you qualify for!  Refueling is cheaper in Darwin and Katherine so always top up before heading into the Outback.

A good plan is to bird early in the morning, use the afternoon to either siesta by the pool or drive to the next destination, then more birding in the afternoon.  The Territory is HOT, even in September which is when we did our trip!

Accommodation ranges from typical Aussie caravan parks (that also have self-catering cabins) to Outback style B&B’s.  You only chance to use hotel points will be in Darwin and Katherine but in this case I recommend choosing a property based on location and convenience within your price range.  We were low-budget and our accommodation averaged around $100 AUD per night.  Plan on picnic breakfasts and lunches while birding or driving between locations, then either BBQ or hit up a pub for dinner.

Stock up on groceries before leaving Darwin or Katherine for a better selection and cheaper prices.  We have a cooler that we keep the meat in and the drinks for the day.  Most accommodations will have a fridge and microwave, even a small kitchenette.  Having said that, by the time the trip was finished, we couldn’t look at another sandwich for weeks!

Bring lots of sunscreen and mosquito repellent, especially for Howard Springs!  If you are using carry-on only, you can easily buy it in Darwin at any supermarket.

Getting To Darwin, Northern Territory With Airline Miles

Darwin is the gateway to the vast Northern Territory of Australia and you’d be surprised how big it really is!  If you are already in Australia (see miles guide here), it’s pretty easy to pick up domestic flights to Darwin (DRW) from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth.

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INTERNATIONAL OPTIONS

STAR ALLIANCE

There are no Star Alliance carriers operating to Darwin, however if you have Singapore Krisflyer miles you can use Silk Air from Singapore.

ONEWORLD

Obviously in Australia Qantas is the main player and you can redeem your miles from any OneWorld partner.  Although Qantas has no direct international flights from Darwin, you can easily add on a Sydney-Darwin (for example) segment to any international award to Australia.

Malaysian Airlines flies direct from Kuala Lumpur and is a great choice for people arriving from Europe.

SKY TEAM

There are no Sky Team carriers operating to Darwin although people with Delta miles can redeem them on Virgin Australia.

NON-ALLIANCE AIRLINES & LOW COST CARRIERS

Virgin Australia is the big one and as mentioned above people with Delta miles can redeem with them.  Virgin is also partnered with Singapore Airlines, Etihad and others.

Jetstar is a partner of Qantas but not a member of OneWorld but they have frequent sales so you are better off keeping an eye on their sale page and just paying for the flights.  This is what I did, I got BNE-DRW-BNE for $210 each!

Air Asia flies direct from Denpasar.

Air North has some interesting destinations like Dili, Timor-Leste and some remote Aussie towns.

 

 

Scottevest’s 16th Anniversary Sale – Save 40% Through 6 Feb

Scottevest has some huge bargains on some of their most popular products.  You can save 40% through 6 Feb by using coupon code SEV16.

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For tropical birding, I recommend the Featherweight vest (Shown below) or the Hunting vest which comes in a nice olive shade.scottevest sale feb2

They have some nice women’s styles for city traveling on sale this time as well.  See my more detailed review on Scottevest.  With more and more airlines restricting carry on bags, I find them invaluable to get those heavy birding field guides, laptop, camera lens past the boarding gates.

It’s also a good idea to keep your valuables like your passport, credit cards, SD cards, cash in the inner pocket and keep it on during the flight.  If there is an emergency evacuation, you will be wearing your valuables and can disembark safely without losing anything essential!

Powerseed Charges Devices Even In The Bush

One of the biggest challenges for ecotourists is keeping your devices such as smart phones, tablets and cameras charged when you are off in the bush and the electricity supply isn’t reliable.  Enter the Powerseed!

This is the one I have and I love it!  It works with my iPhone and Nikon Coolpix P900 (but not the MS Surface Pro I was traveling with until it broke down.

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● Extra Large capacity battery, 4800mAh, this unit provides the extra power to charge multiple units on a single charge

● After 500 charge cycles(drained and recharged): the power is still up to 85%

● Output: DC 5V/1A

● Size: 96 x 42 x 23.5 mm (3.8 x 1.65 x 0.92 inches) compact easy to store or carry

● Supports a variety of universal mobile phone charging interface quick and easy. Comes with the following adapters:

● Mini USB tip

● Micro USB tip

● Tip for Apple iPhone4/S, iPad

● Tip for Samsung Galaxy Tab series & Galaxy Note series

● Tip for Nokia cell phone series

● Tip for Sony Ericsson cell phone series

● Tips for other devices like PSP and GPS

● You can charge this unit from your computer with included cable or use an optional wall plug charger

 

The first trip I actually used it on was the Northern Territory which I am about to start blogging about but I got it when I visited a friend in the USA after the South America & Caribbean trip.

WHERE TO BUY ONE

USA – Orlando

Samm Bucceri
407-496-8297

The biggest problem I was having is that the Nikon eats batteries like no one’s business.  It’s no good to find an awesome bird when you are out in the bush and your camera is dead!  The Powerseed gives a full charge to my camera which I thought was pretty amazing!

Using eBird To Plan Your Birding Trip (Target Species Focus) In 10 Easy Steps

Over the last year or so, I have been using eBird to help plan my travels.  I am usually a species-focused birder when I travel.  That means I have certain species in mind and I will plan my trip to locations where I am most likely to see that species.  Another style of planning might be when you have a trip booked to a destination and you want to know where to go birding and what kind of species you might find there.  For example you have a business trip to Sydney and would like to get in some birding in your spare time.  But the steps below are basically what I do.

STEP 1

Go to eBird, set up an account or log in if you already have one.  Then click on Explore Data and scroll down to Species Maps.

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STEP 2

Enter the name of the species you want to see-either in English or the scientific name.  In the examples below, I will be using the Hooded Parrot which was one of my target species when we went to the Northern Territory of Australia.  The technique works no matter where you want to go and which birds you want to see.  African Grey Parrots in Uganda, Resplendent Quetzals in Costa Rica or Antpittas in Ecuador are all there to be found!

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Now that I have entered the Hooded Parrot, I can see where they are concentrated – just south of Darwin in the Northern Territory of Australia.  This tells me what airport I will need to fly into to begin my trip.  The darker the purple, the more sightings of that species have been logged in eBird.ebird4

STEP 3

Refine the search by using the dates I want to travel.  I will usually choose the quarter that represents the month I will be there and a 10 year data.  Sometimes I scale that back to the most recent 3 years if there are a lot of results.  Also pay attention to red points as they represent sightings of a bird within the last month.  I also click on “Show Points Sooner” on the right side of the screen to make all those points appear.

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By zooming in, I can see the big concentration of points around Pine Creek, Nitmiluk and Katherine.  I note that either would be a simple 2-3 hour drive south of Darwin.  I like to organize my birding for early mornings and late afternoons and use the middle part of the day to drive from one place to another.ebird6

STEP 4

Now I want to examine these “points” that represent bird sightings in more detail.  I will right click on each point in the general area and open in a separate tab.  I want to see what the numbers look like.  Are they big flocks being constantly seen over a period of weeks or months?  This indicates the birds are common to the area and you have a good chance to spot them.  You can also see exact locations such as which park, what street, etc.  This location looks really good, various people (including me) are reporting good sized flocks.  So now I want to examine the Hotspot in more detail.  Right click on “Explore Hotspot” highlighted in yellow.

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STEP 5

Research the Hotspots.  If you are a destination birder rather than a species-specific birder you can come straight to the Hotspot section (see Step 1) and skip the other steps.  Seeing my target species is exciting enough but seeing a lot more birds in the same area is even better.  If I have limited time, I want the most “bang for my buck” so I want a Hotspot that not only has my target but lots of other interesting birds as well!

I have highlighted in yellow the information I want from this screen.  “Get Directions” will get me a Google map to the exact location of the Hotspot.  On the right side, I am looking at how many species are in the average checklist to get an idea of what other birds can be seen and how common they are.  I also take note of names which appear on a regular basis.  These people will be locals, maybe even birding guides so their lists are more likely to be accurate.

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STEP 6

Examine the bar chart for patterns in when the birds are being seen.  For example the Hooded Parrot is commonly seen between July to December.  They haven’t been reported at all in this location between mid January to June so I am glad my trip is in September!  One thing to note:  This location is pretty popular and gets a good amount of reports.  If you don’t see the bird being reported in a particular month, always check to see if ANY birds have been reported in the month.  For example if I were going in March, I would be concerned that no one has reported Hooded Parrots in March but other birds ARE being reported so it’s not a case that no one has filed a report yet for that month.  Birders are there in March, the Hooded Parrots are not there.

Now I scroll though to see what other birds are likely to be seen in September – quite a few parrot species so this looks like a great spot!ebird9

STEP 7

OK I know it isn’t “green” to print things out but it can be very handy to have a checklist readily available.  This is the first time I used this feature on a birding trip and it was invaluable to help me remember what I saw.  It also helped me identify some birds.  I would Google the bird species and match the results against my photos.

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STEP 8

Most people have more than one target species in mind when they go birding.  I do this procedure for all of my main target species (usually parrots but also bowerbirds, fairy-wrens, Gouldian finches).  Then I compare the checklists and bar charts to see what is the fewest number of stops I have to make to get all the desired species.  I had about 20 “Must-sees” for this trip to the Northern Territory.

STEP 9

I  like to cross reference what I learned from this procedure with other birding reports such as those found on Cloudbirders, Surfbirds and anything else that pops up on Google!  Sometimes I find good recommendations for accommodation and guides.

STEP 10

Now that I have my birding Hotspots sorted, I can start to look at other travel arrangements.  I need to fly to Darwin, rent a car and get accommodation near each of those Hotspots!

Falcon Frequent Flyers

I’ve traveled around the Middle East several times and I have seen falcons on planes before but not quite THIS many!  According to quoted news sources, a Saudi prince bought 80 seats in economy (a prince couldn’t afford 1st class?) for his beloved falcons.

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HT:  View From The Wing

I did some hunting around for more pics of falcons on planes and the various means of accommodating them.

Sometimes they have their own stands.

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Sometimes they ride on their owner’s lap.falcon3

Or even the tray table!

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It is not yet clear whether each bird has his own frequent flyer account and earns miles, how they amuse themselves when they can’t see the movie because of the hood and what do they eat?

If you do find yourself seated next to a feathered frequent flyer, don’t worry.  Falcons do not make noise when they travel, they don’t smell, they don’t kick the seat nor do they recline their seats–so enjoy the flight and be grateful they aren’t snakes!

Wrapping Up An Amazing Trip & Southwest Observations

After our brief visit to El Yunque, cut short due to car mishap, it was time to return the car and get to the airport for our Southwest flight to Orlando.  I am really glad that Puerto Rico is part of the USA and has the full CDW with no excess, otherwise I don’t know what would have happened with the ding on the hubcap.

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San Juan’s airport is modern and easy to navigate.  The rental car return area is well-signed and thanks to the full CDW package there were no dramas on returning the car.DSCN4598

San Juan to Orlando is a domestic USA flight so there was only security to get through (no dramas or delays) and then we were free to explore the gift shops.DSCN4601

My husband watching my backpack while I shop.DSCN4599 DSCN4600

We are new to Southwest so a few observations that are probably nothing new to those who fly them often.

  1.  Do online check-in at exactly T-24.  Since these were award tickets booked with transferred Ultimate Rewards points, we each had our own record locator.  I had my ticket open in Firefox and hubby’s ticket in Chrome and was refreshing from 3 minutes beforehand until it allowed us to check in and get boarding positions.  We got A46 & A48, not bad for beginners!
  2.  Despite all this manoeuvering, there were at least 20+ wheelchairs queued up for preboarding.  A few regular pax tried to sneak ahead of us in the A line claiming not to understand (in Spanish) but I had enough Spanish skills to point them to where they were supposed to be and make it clear I wasn’t going to allow line cutters.
  3.  When we got on board, the first section of the plane was completely filled with the preboarded wheelchair pax, their companions and then the people ahead of us in line.  Despite all this, we could have had exit row except the FA wasn’t happy with my husband’s command of the English language (his first language is Maori) and chased us off.  We got aisles across from each other a few rows behind.  The flight was full.
  4.  I don’t know what they put in the water on Southwest but miraculously, there were only about 5 or 6 wheelchairs waiting for the disembarking pax to clear so they could disembark their assigned pax.

Here’s the gate area at SJU for Southwest.  We were there fairly early.

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Anyway, we live in Australia and not likely to fly Southwest again so I am not going to dwell on it, but I wouldn’t have chosen this airline in the first place if there had been award seats available on AA or UA (there weren’t) so we did the best we could.

Well that wraps up the epic adventure to Ecuador, Colombia & the Caribbean.  In the end, we saw some truly amazing birds.  Many at a distance, but still they were there flying freely in all their glory!

Puerto Rican Tody (Todus mexicanus)

The Puerto Rican Tody (Todus mexicanus) is a bird native to the island of Puerto Rico. Despite its scientific name, the Puerto Rican Tody is endemic to the island and is locally known as “San Pedrito” (“Little Saint Peter”).

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Puerto Rican Todies are endemic to the island of Puerto Rico.  I saw this little cutie at El Yunque National Forest.

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LEARN MORE ABOUT PUERTO RICAN TODIES

Wikipedia

Birdlife

Neotropical Birds

VIDEOS

A group of birders found this one at El Yunque.

Although the narration is in Spanish there is some excellent footage of the bird eating bugs and feeding his young.

Misadventures In El Yunque Rainforest

The El Yunque National Forest is one of Puerto Rico’s biggest drawcards for both birders and normal tourists alike.  At one time, it was the only place to find the Puerto Rican Amazon but they have now been expanded to Rio Abajo Forest as well.  It’s an easy 45 minute drive from the Intercontinental Hotel where we stayed the night and also to the airport.  This would be our last excursion before flying to Orlando.

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A few scenes on the way

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Beautiful Puerto Rican Parrot statue!DSCN4568

Wait, what’s that?DSCN4572

A beautiful parrot mural!  That sign is very ill-placed though.DSCN4573

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So now we have entered the park and trying to decide where to go first.  Another tourist we passed said there was a nice lookout just up the road so decided to take their advice.DSCN4575 DSCN4576 DSCN4577 DSCN4578 DSCN4580

Still heading towards the lookout, there were some shops I thought we would check out on the way back.DSCN4582 DSCN4583 DSCN4584

Now we are parked at the lookout and almost immediately I was hearing birdsong.DSCN4587

And found this cute little Puerto Rican Tody!DSCN4588

After the tody flew off, we wandered around looking for more birds.DSCN4589

Another tourist called my attention to the banged up hubcap and ding above it.DSCN4591 DSCN4592

This was NOT good!  I started freaking out, even though we had paid for the full CDW insurance.  I have no idea when and where that happened.DSCN4593 DSCN4594

I was worried there might be dramas so we decided to leave El Yunque early and head back to return the car.  I showed it to the returns officer and also showed my rental agreement with the CDW included.  Thankfully, he said it was OK and covered by he insurance!  So lesson learned – always make sure your rental car is insured!

Sadly this meant our trip to El Yunque was cut short…………..maybe a reason to go back someday?