Chiara Talia

Bird photography and birdwatching in Daintree and Atherton Tablelands (Queensland): a tropical paradise

Far North Queensland is the northernmost part of the Australian state of Queensland. When I had to choose where to spend one full week of my bird-focused Australia trip on December 2022 (I described my whole process to come up with my itinerary here), from the things I was reading and from the photos I was seeing, Far North Queensland region appeared as a pure birds and wildlife enthusiast’s paradise. The first part of my itinerary included Atherton Tablelands and Daintree.

This region is the only place in the world where two World Heritage Listed areas exist side by side. The Wet Tropics of Queensland, stretches along the northeast coast of Australia for about 450 kilometres, encompassing almost 900 thousand hectares of mostly tropical rainforest. This stunningly beautiful area is extremely important for its rich and unique biodiversity, including about 370 bird species, some of which live only here. Overall, nearly half of Australian bird species call the Wet Tropics home! There is a place where the rainforest meets another World Heritage site, the Great Barrier Reef which contains the world’s largest collection of coral reef system (with almost 3000 individual reefs and 1000 islands).

Did this region live up to the expectations? Let’s find out!

After landing in Cairns (3h flight from Melbourne)– I was immediately on the road to start with my loop itinerary. 

Atherton Tablelands: home for upland endemic birds

Just 90 km south-west of Cairns, rising about 700m above sea level, the Atherton Tablelands is a fertile plateau hosting several habitats, including rainforests, drier eucalypt woodlands, wetlands and savannah. The Tablelands are normally not included in the general tourist routes – which makes the place even better!

It was already late afternoon when I arrived at my accommodation. And I was immediately blown away by the beauty. I stayed at Crater Lakes Rainforest Cottages, which – as the name suggests – offer accommodations in the rainforest. I spent two nights there and although most of the time I was away visiting the nearby area, just staying on the veranda of the cottage or walking around the property I saw (and photographed) an amazing variety of birds (in bold you will find the birds that are endemic to the Wet Tropics Bioregion):

Victoria’s riflebird, Pacific emerald dove, Australian brushturkey, Orange-footed scrubfowl, Spotted catbird, honeyeaters (Lewin’s, Macleay’s, bridled), Eastern whipbird, Grey fantail, Pied monarch, Spectacled monarch, Black-faced monarch, Grey-headed robin, Pale yellow robin, Silvereye, Sprangled drongo, Eastern spinebill.

Below a small selection of the bird photos taken there: 


Going to sleep in a rainforest, with all its sounds, was an experience of its kind (check this video)! My first full day in the rainforest didn’t start well as I was hit on my eye by a twig falling from a tree (I mean… what were the chances?). I knew Australia could be dangerous but that wasn’t expected at all!😂 Anyway nothing serious – I could re-open my eye after a few minutes but I was left with a very colored bruise (that didn’t make my selfies look great!). You can watch the full story here

Anyway a small accident could not stop my enthusiasm as I had a guided morning birdwatching session with Patrick from Eyes on Wildlife! We explored some of the birding hotspots of the Tablelands, including Lake Eacham and Lake Barrine. At Hasties swamp, from the bird hide, I made acquaintance with wetland species: Magpie goose, Cotton pygmy goose, Grey teals, Australasian grebes, Great crested grebe, Pied stilt, Comb-crested jacana, Little pied and Little black cormorant, Australian white ibis, Royal spoonbill, Great egret, Intermediate egret. Other interesting birds included Wedge-tailed eagles, Dollarbird and Red-backed fairywren. It was a very productive morning – and I highly recommend taking a guided tour with Patrick if you want to make the most out of your time there.


Atherton Tablelands: bird highlights


This species is a Wet tropic endemics inhabiting rainforest above 400m. During my stay, I saw at least 4 different individuals that visited the veranda of the cottage. Victoria’s riflebird belongs to the bird of paradise family. Birds of paradise are renowed for their spectacular plumages and the elaborate courtship display of the male. During my short stay there, unfortunately I didn’t see a male displaying but my experience was still amazing. The male has a velvety black plumage, with metallic blue-green iridescence on the cap and throat. The female has cinnamon-tinged underparts. These birds are special – and it is very hard to put into words my feeling of awe when a male first appeared. A very curious and fun thing about the male birds is a very specific sound they make when flying – their “heavy” wing beats make a distinctive rustle. I think it was the first time I could identify a bird not by song nor by sight – but by the sound of its flight! 


These are medium-large passerines that are renowned for constructing elaborate bowers used for courtship – although not all species do that. For example, the tooth-billed bowerbird clears a courtship court on the forest floor, removing all leaf litter and decorating with green leaves. Although rather unobtrusive and easily overlooked for its colours, the male can be easily located by its loud and persistent song which is given from a preferred perched above the court. You can see a video I took of the tooth-billed bowerbird calling here. The spotted catbird also doesn’t build a bower nor has a court. This bird takes its name from its loud song which sounds as a yowling cat. If I close my eyes, I can still remember that loud song coming from the deep rainforest. Unfortunately, I didn’t see other bowerbirds but I could visit the bower of a golden bowerbird. This species builds a single or twin tower of sticks and decorates it with lichen, fruit or flowers. Fun fact: the bowers are fused together by fungi and can be used for many years. 


Typical ground bird endemic to this tropical rainforest area. They are strongly territorial in family group: and a family was the one I could see while walking in the rainforest. The chowchilla presents several adaptations to a terrestrial life: it has powerful legs and feet that use to rake forest litter with lateral sweeping movements (as in the photo). With this, the soil gets exposed and the chowchilla can scratch it to find small invertebrates!

Heading north

After 2 wonderful days on the Tablelands, it was time to continue my journey up north. On my way there I stopped at Mossman Gorge (very touristy – way too much for any good birding) and at Wonga beach – where for the first time I experienced the ocean. Driving further north, I finally arrived to Daintree.

Daintree: birds of an ancient rainforest

On the bank of the Daintree river, the little rural town of Daintree now lives out of tourism and fruit farming. Daintree is an extremely popular destination for birders – that would catch a boat at sunrise to explore the river. And guess what? That’s what I did! This cruise is actually also very popular for crocodile-spotting.

I woke up before sunrise. Before my boat cruise I really wanted to have a walk around the town. The high humidity created a dense, almost oppressive atmosphere. There was no one around. It was one of those magical moments where the reality is just beyond anything you could imagine. I felt I was in another world – so much what was around me was unfamiliar to me, yet so exciting. I took a few photos, then it was time for my boat cruise. 

The fog was still on the river. Birding-wise the cruise was quieter than usual – I was told. Despite this, I was able to tick off a few high-desired species that are a Daintree river specialties, including the Great-billed heron and the Black bittern. Other species seen included the Azure kingfisher, Pale-vented bush hen (heard), Brahminy kite, Large-billed gerygone, Shining flycatcher, Pheasant coucal, Striated heron (on the nest).

Immediately after the cruise ended, there was no time to rest. I kept going north, to reach the heart of the Daintree National Park. As there are no bridges, the only way to cross the Daintree river is actually to take a ferry which takes only about 10 minutes to cross. Once arrived on the other side, all I had to do was following the main road (there are really only a few roads there).

The first stop was a the Mount Alexandra Lookout. Then I kept driving making several stops, especially to explore all the boardwalks available (Jindalba, Madja, Dubuji, Kulki). Boardwalks make rainforest and mangrove forests more accessible and safer, at the same time they limit the impact on the rainforest floor. If you have time I would recommend doing all the walks, as the type of habitats and sceneries really vary across them.
My final stop was Cape Tribulation. The remote headland of Cape Tribulation is where two UNESCO World Heritage Sites meet – the Wet Tropics Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef. The forest tumbles right down to the coast with just a very thin strip of sand separating it from the crystal blue water of the ocean.

Daintree: bird highlights


 Although I haven’t mentioned it until now, one of the target species in this area is the Southern cassowary – an iconic, large and impressive bird. Jindalba boardwalk is a place where the species is often seen. I visited Jindalba the first time early afternoon, and many people were around so the conditions were definitely not ideal for birding. So I decided to go back to the Jindalba boardwalk a second time, early morning. However I was surprised by another bird that I wasn’t even hoping to find. When I was walking there, I had a glimpse of something blue with a long white tail making a distinctive call. Although I had never seen that bird in real life before, I knew what it was: a buff-breasted paradise kingfisher! This is a migratory species coming to this part of Australia to breed (using termite mounds as nest!). And I was so happy. Yes, it was short but a great sighting. I didn’t know things were about to get better. I kept walking – again looking for the cassowary. But then I saw it. The buff-breasted paradise kingfisher was perching on a tree just on the side of the trail. I looked via the viewfinder of my camera. It was quite far, and there way too many branches. I decided to try my luck and step by step I tried to get closer, but especially to find an opening between the forest vegetation. I was so nervous, my heart was beating fast, I was even shaking when I realized in my viewfinder I could see the bird in all its beauty. And I took the photo. I was still quite far, it was quite dark, the photos are not technically perfect – but it was one of those moments I will remember forever (I made a small behind-the-scenes video here).

If this was the most special kingfisher I could see, during my time in Daintree I also saw the azure, the little and the forest kingfisher. If this is not a kingfisher paradise, then what it is?

I have to admit that leaving Daintree behind was hard. The best way to describe this corner of the world is raw, wild, ancient. I just wish I had more time, but my schedule was tight and it was time to make my way back to Cairns.
While going there I started wondering if my next stops could equal the beauty and encounters I had just made. You will find it out in the next blog posts! 😉

In the meantime, you can look at other exclusive content on my Instagram. If you want to have a look at some higher resolution photos you can also check the new Australia section in my Portfolio. And if you have any question about this part of my itinerary, want more information in case you are also planning to go there do not hesitate to contact me.


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