Na­ture on the wing

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION AFLOAT - AN­GELA SAU­RINE

Rip­ples break the still sur­face of the Dain­tree River, grad­u­ally fan­ning out to­wards the shore as our boat glides along. In the dis­tance, thickly veg­e­tated hills are shrouded in mist. Sud­denly the si­lence is bro­ken by a flight of swal­lows that cir­cle us be­fore dart­ing off into nearby trees.

Dawn is the best time of day to catch what our guide and self-con­fessed “bird nerd” Mur­ray Hunt de­scribes as the “spe­cial crea­tures of the river” at their most ac­tive. “I might hit the alarm clock when it goes off in the morn­ing but I fall in love with the river again each day,” Hunt says. “Ev­ery day the Dain­tree pro­duces some­thing and I don’t know what it’s go­ing to be.”

As we mo­sey along what Hunt de­scribes as a “long, wind­ing, con­fused” river in the 10-per­son boat, he ed­u­cates us on the en­demic flora and fauna. Our first en­counter is a large black darter bird sit­ting in a dam­son plum tree. A pro­fes­sional spear fish­er­man, it has a sharp bill and flex­i­ble neck so its head snaps for­ward to im­pale prey. Then there’s the mag­pie geese we see fly­ing over­head. Hunt says male geese have two or three “girl­friends” and are real sweet talk­ers, con­vinc­ing the fe­males to all lay their eggs in the same nest. This way they can keep an eye out for preda­tors such as croc­o­diles, sea ea­gles and snakes.

As if on cue, we spot an amethys­tine python ly­ing curled along a branch a few me­tres above the wa­ter; the snake is so called be­cause in the sun­light its colour re­sem­bles an amethyst. The Dain­tree River, in Trop­i­cal North Queens­land, is home to more than 30 species of man­grove, mak­ing it one of the most di­verse in the world. The tallest and most com­mon is the green ap­ple man­grove, which pro­duces a fruit that looks and smells like an ap­ple but “tastes bloody hor­ri­ble”. The or­ange man­grove pro­duces fruit shaped like a cigar.

Through our binoc­u­lars, we watch a ju­ve­nile white­bel­lied sea ea­gle perched in a tree. Hunt re­cently saw a sim­i­lar bird plunge in front of the boat to pluck a file snake from the wa­ter. He grew up in Du­ral, in Syd­ney’s north­west, where he would while away the hours ob­serv­ing wild par­rots. He had been on the cruise sev­eral times when it was run by his pre­de­ces­sor, and took over the busi­ness seven years ago. Be­fore that, he worked as a guide at Uluru and Kakadu na­tional parks in the North­ern Ter­ri­tory, and on South Aus­tralia’s Kan­ga­roo Is­land.

We veer off the river into Bar­ratt Creek, which Hunt de­scribes as “a botan­i­cal won­der­land”. “Each rain­for­est tree has around 50 plants — mosses, lichens, ferns, maybe even an orchid or two,” he says, be­fore point­ing out a new species of plant with small mauve flow­ers called Dain­tree wis­te­ria and iden­ti­fied by a botanist two years ago.

The Dain­tree River is known for three birds — the great billed heron, lit­tle king­fish­ers and the Pa­puan frog mouth, which have im­pres­sive cam­ou­flage, so we are lucky to spot sev­eral this morn­ing. We see a saltwater croc­o­dile on the bank that dis­ap­pears into the wa­ter when he spots us. We also tick off the azure king­fisher and sa­cred king­fisher, but my high­light is the wom­poo fruit dove we see on its nest. With a pur­ple chest, pale blue face and splash of yel­low and green on its wings, it is sim­ply beau­ti­ful.

An­gela Sau­rine was a guest of Tourism and Events Queens­land.

Dain­tree River, top; azure king­fisher, above

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