From Katherine Gorge, we headed to Kakadu National Park. The most impressive feature of the park is the seasonal wetlands that change dramatically between the rainy and the dry seasons.
April is the first month of the dry season, meaning that the flooding started to subside, though many areas accessible during the dry season are still under water.
We based ourselves at Cooinda Camping ground and spent 3 days exploring the wildlife of Kakadu National Park. One of the best way to see the wildlife in the park is by cruising the Yellow Water Billabong. There are early morning and late afternoon cruises available at Cooinda and we did them all.
The Yellow Water Billabong provides the perfect habitat for two species of crocodiles (Saltwater and Freshwater), a phenomenal variety of bird species and a number of smaller reptiles.
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Just about any body of water in the park may very well be hiding one of the world’s most formidable predators underneath its deceptively calm surface.
Two species of crocodile occur in Kakadu: the Freshwater crocodile (Crocodylus johnstonii) and the Estuarine or Saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus), affectionately known as the Salty.
Salties are by far the more impressive of the two. The world’s largest reptiles, they may grow to over 6 meters long, weighing over 1,000kg.
The largest Saltwater crocodile ever recorded was shot in Queensland in 1957. That animal was reported to be 8.6 meters long. It pays to remember that when you are looking at a submerged crocodile with only the top of its head and snout visible above the surface, that visible part represents 1/8thof the animal’s total size.
The Saltwater crocodiles are Australia’s largest estuarine predator. In 2010 a group of awed tourist at Kakadu watched a Salty gobble a 3-meter-long Bull shark. And in 2011 a large male Salty killed a Bengal tiger in India’s Sundarbans – the area infamous for its man-eating tigers.
However, life is not always peachy even for such a formidable predator. Only about 1% of all hatchlings reach adulthood. The rest fall prey to fish, birds, monitor lizards and other crocodiles. Though, those that do mature can live to up to 70 years old.
The Freshwater crocodiles are endemic to Australia. They are much smaller than Salties and are not known to attack people.
As the name suggests, they live mainly in freshwater wetlands, billabongs, rivers and creeks, though they are tolerant of salt water. They are a poor competitor for Salties, and therefore not as easy to find in Kakadu.
Birds of Kakadu
It’s not all about the crocodiles of course. Kakadu supports 280 species of birds – about one-third of all Australia’s birds.
I had a number of species on my list that I was hoping to see in Kakadu, and all of them were wetland-associated species.
Comb-crested jacanas were very abundant at the Yellow Water. This species is also known as the Jesus bird, because of their apparent ability to walk on water – a superpower they owe to their hugely elongated toes that allow them to balance effortlessly on top of water lilies and other aquatic plants.
In this species, it is the male that looks after the chicks once they hatch. Most of them take their paternal duties quite seriously, religiously chasing away any intruders.
Another species I was searching for was the Jabiru stork. It was too early in the season for them, but after 3 days and 6 cruises, we found the first Jabiru of the season.
I was also hoping to see Brolgas at Kakadu, but while we saw a few birds flying overhead, we never got a chance to actually watch or photograph them.
‘Wishlist’ species aside, Kakadu has an amazing diversity of birdlife. We regularly saw magpie geese, Masked lapwings, Intermediate egrets, bee-eaterse eaters, Caspian tern, Plumed whistling ducks, Nankeen night herons, Radja shell ducks, Australian darters, Pigmy goose, Bush-stone curlews, White-breasted woodswallows, Restless flycatchers, Lemon-bellied flycatchers, Broad-billed flycatchers, Shining flycatcher, Sulphur-crested cockatoo, Little Corella Bar-shouldered doves and White-throated honeyeaters.
The raptors are represented in Kakadu by the White-bellied sea eagle, Whistling kite and Black kite.
Mammals of Kakadu
In terms of mammals, we spotted two new species: Black-footed tree rat and Northern Bruspossum at Cooinda. There were also Agile wallabies, Dingo and Black flying foxes.
Reptiles of Kakadu
The reptiles we saw in Kakadu, naturally included Saltwater crocodile, as well as Black-headed python, Children’s python, Carpet python, Green tree snake, Common tree snake, Desert tree frog, Rocket frog, Tornier’s frog, Dahl’s aquatic frog, Roth’s tree frog, and Green tree frog.
For something different to do in Kakadu, we decided to explore Ubirr Rock the following morning. This site is best known for its 40,000 years old rock art, but I was more interested in spotting some Short-eared Rock Wallabies that live on the rock outcrops there.
The drive to Ubirr was not an experience for the faint-hearted – the road at Magela Creek crossing was flooded by 0.6 meters of water.
It wouldn’t be too bad if it was just water, but in Kakadu water means crocodiles and stalling at the bottom of the creek surrounded by crocs seemed like a rather grim proposition. But after some deliberation, we decided to brave the crossing and luckily emerged victorious at the other end.
Ubirr is quite a different environment to most of Kakadu that we have seen so far. It is considerably higher than the wetlands of the Yellow Water Billabong and it offers incredible panoramic views of the floodplains and escarpments below. The wallabies were not particularly easy to find, but we managed to spot a couple perfectly camouflaged against the dark blotchy rocks.
On the way back from Ubirr we drove past a patch-burn and spotted a smoke-dazed Mallee Dragon that ran out into the open escaping the fire. A very unfortunate side effect of prescribed burns is the disturbance they create for the wildlife that they displace.
From Kakadu we headed along the Arnhem Hwy to Mary River. Follow the story here
An excellent source of information about the wildlife encountered in Australia’s Top End is Birds and Animals of Australia’s Top End: Darwin, Kakadu, Katherine, and Kununurra.
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