Contact Call | Volume 9 Number 4 | December 2020
Crimson Finch (Neochmia phaeton evangelinae) male and female.
Martin Willis and I had previously seen the restricted white-bellied subspecies of Crimson Finch (Neochmia phaeton evangelinae) but had unsatisfactory images. We decided that October provided us with the best chance of finding and photographing this gorgeous grassfinch. We needed to be there before the rains so that birds would still be coming in to accessible waterholes rather than being dispersed over the extensive habitat in Rinyirru/Lakefield National Park. There had been quite a few recent records of Crimson Finches in the 12-mile lagoon camping area and that was where we had seen them a couple of years ago, so that was our focus and we booked a campsite for the 11th – 14th October.
We were delighted to discover very few campers in the park (maybe COVID19 effect, or just because the weather was getting warm) and our campsite was a splendid site on the bank of the Normanby River. Along the track into the campsites we disturbed small flocks of finches including Double-barred Finch, Red-browed Finch (the local black-vented subspecies minor) and some Crimson Finches. After setting up our minimalist camp, we drove along the narrow access tracks and soon had views of many birds. The Crimson Finches proved to be quite flighty and despite our efforts at careful stalking we found it very difficult to get close enough for good photographs. At one of the first places we saw them we also saw a single Red-backed Buttonquail – but it too quickly disappeared into the tall grass. At one waterhole, we saw flocks of Banded Honeyeaters drinking and bathing, along with a few Crimson Finches, other honeyeaters and a pair of Brolga, several egrets and herons, three splendid Jabiru and an adult White-bellied Sea Eagle.
Back at camp later in the afternoon we were astonished to find a flock of our target species feeding around the campsite. When disturbed they would fly into a patch of thick greenery on the bank of the river where they would occasionally pose quite well. We soon realised that the secret to success would be to simply sit or stand quietly and let them continue with their social engagements and their feeding. It did seem to us that over the period we were camped at this site, they became more used to us and were a little more tolerant of our photography efforts. Patience and persistence seemed to be the best strategy.
Image: Peter Valentine.
When feeding on the ground there would be the occasional interaction within the flock, with one bird harassing another, and when the flock flew into the protective shrubs there was a constant chase as one bird moved another along. While they were engaged with these social interactions within the flock we were often given a clear view – sufficient for a long-range photo. The joy of a telephoto lens! For most of the time we simply enjoyed seeing them behaving naturally. Both the male and female adult-plumaged birds are very attractive with their much brighter red colour than the black-bellied form and the white belly standing out nicely. The contrast with their grey upper parts was also appealing. Their bright red beaks have a couple of small white patches near the base and these further enhanced their attractiveness.
It is hard to imagine a more appealing campsite. As we sat in our camp chairs at the end of the day we were entertained by tens of thousands of flying foxes on their way to feed. They flew upstream along the river in a continuous ribbon for 20 minutes or so and presumably most of the local population passed overhead. It seemed likely there were two species; perhaps Little Red Flying Fox made up the bulk of the individuals, but some larger animals were also present, most likely Black Flying Foxes. As dusk fell a single medium-sized microbat circled through the campsite, too swift to see enough detail to identify. A nearby Large-tailed Nightjar started calling but we were surprised that it restricted itself to only a few minutes at this time each night. During the night, a Papuan Frogmouth called and then visited the camp to perch in trees above our tents.
Early in the morning (5:30 am) the flying foxes returned, a little more rowdy than the evening flight, and with an occasional release of fluid sprayed on my mozziedome! Not really nectar of the Gods.
The Green Orioles would start singing about then and keep us company most of the day, along with the noisy Blue-faced Honeyeaters, Little Friarbirds and ever-present lorikeets, delighted with the huge amount of blossom in the eucalypts and the paperbarks. The occasional Black Butcherbird was pleasing to hear. We had a range of other local species including several Radjah Shelducks on the river’s edge and a couple of quite large freshwater crocodiles who sunbaked on the sandbar or floated in the warmer shallow water.
A pair of Fairy Gerygone had started nest-building, perhaps anticipating the wet season’s early arrival. In the fruiting sandpaper figs there were many birds feeding including Red-winged Parrots, White-bellied Cuckoo-shrike, Great Bowerbirds, White-gaped Honeyeaters, Australasian Figbirds, Olive-backed and Green Orioles. Blue-winged Kookaburras cheered up the campsite with their calls and occasional Koel and Channel-billed Cuckoos joined the Pheasant Coucals with their impressive greetings. Torresian Imperial Pigeons fed and called throughout the day. Lovely Fairywrens kept well hidden in the surrounding bush.
On our last day we went north to Nifold Plain, in search of the Star Finches we had seen there before. We were unsuccessful on this front but at a small dam found huge flocks of Black-throated Finches with a few Masked Finches and Double-barred Finches. There was no sign of the usually large flocks of Chestnut-breasted Mannikins. Along the side of the road were occasional parties of Brolga and Sarus Crane and we disturbed the road-kill feeders including Wedge-tailed Eagle, Black and Whistling Kites and the inevitable crows. A rather fat young male pig refused to leave its lunch of long dead wallaby. A large flock of Red-tailed Black Cockatoos was feeding in eucalypts along the road.
We decided to check out a Red Goshawk nest just northwest of the National Park boundary and we quickly found the female perched in a tall tree not far from the nest tree. There was no sign of the male.
Image: Peter Valentine.
We watched for a while from a distance as we expected the female might return to the nest in which we believed there might be a young chick. After some time and no movement from the female we became a little suspicious as in the heat of the day there would usually be a parent protecting the chick from the sun. We approached the nest tree and were shocked to discover a dead chick, perhaps dead for 4–5 days, on the ground immediately beneath the nest. The cause of death was not certain but presumably a fall from such a great height would be fatal. We heard later that in a Red Goshawk nest near Musgrave a chick had been blown out of the nest previously and there were certainly very strong winds this year. This experience caused us some distress as these Endangered raptors are struggling to survive due to extensive habitat loss; such loss continuing in this last remaining fortress for the species due to mining and grazing activities.
Image: Peter Valentine.
The next day we headed back to Cooktown to catch up with Kath Shurcliff and Dave Houghton, and while in the area to check out the possible arrival of the Black-winged Monarch. We were lucky and had great views of this breeding migrant and of a few other species including Satin Flycatcher, Shining Flycatcher, Rose-crowned and Superb Fruit-doves; Yellow-spotted, Macleay’s and Cryptic Honeyeaters (about the northern most location for these guys) as well as Grey Whistler and Metallic Starlings. Despite the heat and the dust, we thoroughly enjoyed this short trip and look forward to a return to this wonderful National Park. It is just a few hours from the tablelands.
If any of our members or supporters has photographs of the white-bellied Crimson Finch, please contact member Ray Pierce at email@example.com who is studying this bird and is looking for photos (see article in Contact Call November 2017, Vol 6 Number 4 page 15).
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