Hunting With The Birdman Of Kakadu

Home to over 290 species of birds—that’s over a third of Australia’s species, Kakadu National Park is a birdwatcher’s dream. But when you’re here with Luke Paterson, renowned ‘hawkeye’ of the nature tourism industry, the dial turns up to max.

Birdwatching in Kakadu - Mamukala Wetlands with Luke Paterson

The big Land Cruiser rolls down the hotel driveway. The sun isn’t up yet, and as the car’s headlights flicker through the bushes, catching the early birds in its spotlight. For a moment, it highlights the singers of a noisy dawn chorus that’s barely past its first verse.

Even here, outside the unusual frontage of the Crocodile Hotel in Jabiru, the area is rich in birdlife.

The driver’s door of the four-wheel-drive opens. From under the rim of a battered Akubra, the shining eyes and boyish smile of Luke Paterson greet us and welcome us aboard.

Check out our video of our tour with Luke around Kakadu National Park here:

Christina and I are lucky to be in the NT for Kakadu Bird Week—eight days in late September that celebrate the incredible wealth of birds here. It coincides with the coming of the Bamarru—the mass migration of magpie geese that fill the depleted waterways of Kakadu towards the end of the Dry Season.

Luke Paterson and NT Bird Specialists

As we make the 20-minute drive to our first spot—Mamukala Wetlands, Luke chats to us about the NT and Kakadu, about birds, and a bit about his background.

From camping trips as a boy growing up in regional Victoria to working as warden of the Broome Bird Observatory WA to finally moving to Darwin and starting his own nature tours company NT Bird Specialists, Luke has always immersed himself in nature.

Birdwatching in Kakadu - Mamukala Wetlands with Luke Paterson

Luke’s personal accolades for wildlife tourism and his multi-award-winning company speak of an illustrious career. And his name in the birding world brings ubiquitous nods of approval.

His is a rare and enviable mix of talent and passion, coupled to a humble outlook that allows you to relax in his company and ask any question. We don’t bring up his ‘Hawkeye’ moniker though. And I somehow resist the temptation to point out how much he looks like Paul Rudd.

He does though, right?

But Luke’s openness and easy laugh, the generosity with which he shares his profound knowledge and his general enthusiasm does him credit. He has an uncanny ability of putting you at ease.

Birdwatching in Kakadu - Mamukala Wetlands with Luke Paterson - Luke, Christina and Jim

Birding With Luke Paterson

We arrive at Mamukala Wetlands and troop through the greying dawn light to the edge of the receding water.

As we walk, a sound like an enormous swarm of bees fills the air. We realise it’s not the drone of insects, but the reverberating honk of thousands upon thousands of magpie geese.

This mass migration is one of nature’s true spectacles. It feels like we’re watching something by Attenborough. The air is thick with these great birds as they arrive in strings and arrows by the dozen.

Birdwatching in Kakadu - Mamukala Wetlands with Luke Paterson - magpie geeseBirdwatching in Kakadu - Mamukala Wetlands with Luke Paterson - monocular

But it’s not until we look through Luke’s impressive monoscope that we get a true scale of the scene.

Geese fill the 20km² of water. At the near shoreline, we see herds of geese grazing. But then we gaze 10 metres further. And another 10 and another.

Soon our focus draws out to the horizon until the morning mists and the shimmer of the day’s coming heat, together with geese too distant and many to see, turn the view into a homogenous moving mass.

Birdwatching in Kakadu - Mamukala Wetlands with Luke Paterson - magpie goose migration Birdwatching in Kakadu - Mamukala Wetlands with Luke Paterson - magpie goose migration

But then, mixed in with the geese, Luke points out other birds. Comb-crested jacanas, black necked storks, radjah shelducks, grebes, cormorants, sandpipers… the sheer amount of life here is overwhelming.

We look over at Luke, whose face is alight with joy. He’s probably been here and seen this a million times, but it’s like this is his first.

Mamukala Bird Hide

Soon, it’s time to move on and we trek to the bird hide. We peep out over the water at the birds from a new angle and much closer than we were before.

Birdwatching in Kakadu - Mamukala Wetlands with Luke Paterson- bird hide

The spectacle of the migrating geese is still striking, but it creates a backdrop to the other waterfowl here rather than being the main event.

Around 30m long and timber decked, the hide is a comfortable way to see the local wildlife up close. Also, the path up to the hide connects to the carpark, making this part of the wetlands very accessible.

Away From The Water

After some time in the hide, we take a walk back through the thick trees and bushes of the wetlands area. Away from the water’s edge, the landscape attracts a completely different type of birdlife.

Diamond doves, tawny frogmouths, a pheasant coucal, and a host of finches, honeyeaters and flycatchers—even the odd agile wallaby—make their presence known. Though, without Luke with us, there’s no chance we’d know what we’re looking at.

Birdwatching in Kakadu - Mamukala Wetlands with Luke Paterson - photographing an agile wallaby

Birdwatching in Kakadu - Mamukala Wetlands with Luke Paterson -Rainbow Bee Eater

Rainbow Bee-Eater

At the same time, by the end the walk, we get back into the car feeling far too confident that we can identify so many more birds now thanks to Luke sharing his knowledge.

Of course, it’s a confidence that’s somewhat unfounded and we quickly realise a lot more practice is needed. But Luke’s infectious enthusiasm spurs us.

Breakfast

A short drive up the road leads us to a picnic site next to the banks of the East Alligator River, the main waterway that runs through Kakadu from the Van Diemen Gulf.

Luke spreads a tablecloth out over the picnic bench, where we sit and enjoy breakfast of fruit, pastries and coffee together. But that’s not the end of the bird-spotting.

Birdwatching in Kakadu - Mamukala Wetlands with Luke Paterson - lunch and birding

We see a whistling kite above us, a common bird of prey in Kakadu, but nonetheless captivating. Higher in the sky a white bellied sea eagle soars, and even the tree by our table has a host of small birds living in it.

As the clock strikes 10am, the heat of the day is now upon us. We climb back into Luke’s 4×4, glad of the air conditioning.

We arrive back at our hotel feeling invigorated, which is surprising considering the time we were up. We say our farewells to Luke and, as we relax in our room, we reflect that time seemed to disappear with him. We were out with Luke for five hours, but it had felt more like five minutes.

Let’s hope we have the chance of birding with him again.

The next time you’re in the Northern Territory, be sure to book a birding tour with Luke Paterson at NT Bird Specialists. It’s an experience you’ll never forget.

Bird Species Spotted at Mamukala Wetlands and picnic spot next to East Alligator River

Magpie GooseStraw-Necked IbisWhite-Throated Gerygone
Green Pygmy-GooseWhite-Headed StiltWhite-Gaped Honeyeater
Radjah ShelduckRoyal SpoonbillBar-Breasted Honeyeater 
Plumed Whistling-DuckWhistling KiteRufous-Banded Honeyeater
Wandering Whistling-DuckWhite-Bellied Sea EagleDusky Myzomela (Honeyeater)
Pacific Black DuckPurple SwamphenRed-Headed Myzomela
Australasian GrebeMasked LapwingWhite-Throated Honeyeater
Diamond DoveComb-Crested JacanaWhite-Bellied Cuckoo-Shrike
Peaceful DoveMarsh SandpiperVaried Triller
Bar-Shouldered DoveSharp-Tailed SandpiperRufous Whistler
Tawny FrogmouthAustralian PratincoleGreen (Yellow) Oriole 
Little Pied CormorantAustralian TernWillie Wagtail
Little Black CormorantWhiskered TernTorresian Crow
Black Necked Stork (Jabiru)Little CorellaMagpie Lark
Cattle EgretSulphur-Crested CockatooPaperbark Flycatcher
Intermediate (Plumed) EgretRed-Collared (Rainbow) LorikeetLemon-Bellied Flycatcher
Great EgretPheasant CoucalDouble-Barred Finch
White-Necked HeronLittle Bronze-CuckooLong-Tailed Finch
Pied HeronBlue-Winged KookaburraMasked Finch
Nankeen Night HeronForest KingfisherCrimson Finch
Australian White IbisRainbow Bee-Eater
Glossy IbisRed-Backed Fairy-Wren
These are the 64 bird species we saw and heard while we were out with Luke – 3/10/23

Birdwatching in Kakadu - Mamukala Wetlands with Luke Paterson - Jim and Christina

We visited Kakadu and travelled with Luke Paterson as media guests of Kakadu Tourism, NT Tourism and NT Bird Specialists, but our experiences and opinions remain our own.

Be first to comment