Thursday 30 March 2023

Who was John MacGillivray?


John MacGillivray was a Scottish naturalist who lived from 1822 to 1867. He was a prolific collector and explorer, and is best known for his travels to Australia and the Pacific, where he collected and documented a vast array of plant and animal species.

John MacGillivray

In 1848, MacGillivray was invited by the British government to join the HMS Rattlesnake as the naturalist on an expedition to the Australian coast. The Rattlesnake spent three years mapping the coast of Australia and the Pacific, and during this time, MacGillivray collected and documented an enormous number of specimens, including birds, insects, plants, and marine life.

HMS Rattlesnake

One of the most significant areas of MacGillivray's collecting work was the Cape York Peninsula, located in the far north of Queensland, Australia. This remote and rugged region was largely unexplored at the time, and MacGillivray's work there was critical in helping to build our understanding of the natural history of the area.

MacGillivray's bird collecting work on the Cape York Peninsula was particularly noteworthy. During his time there, he collected over 500 bird specimens, representing around 90 species. Many of these were new to science, and MacGillivray's work helped to establish the region as a critical area for bird diversity and conservation.

MacGillivray was an incredibly meticulous and dedicated collector, and his notes and observations from his time on the Cape York Peninsula provide a fascinating window into the world of 19th-century naturalism. For example, he recorded detailed notes on the diet and habitat preferences of different bird species, as well as their behaviours and vocalizations. He also realised that the development of relationships with local Indigenous peoples were critical to the success of his work. Not simply guides, they had an enormous collective experience of their own natural world. MacGillivray was always at great pains to ensure, where possible, the local dialectal name was recorded for any specimen he collected.

One of the most significant bird species that MacGillivray collected on the Cape York Peninsula was the Golden-shouldered Parrot (Psephotus chrysopterygius). This colourful bird is endemic to the Cape York Peninsula and is listed as endangered due to habitat loss and fragmentation. MacGillivray's early collections of this species provided important information about its distribution, ecology, and behaviour, and continue to inform conservation efforts today.

Golden-shouldered Parrot

The following is an account by expedition naturalist John MacGillivray from the Narrative of the Voyage of HMS Rattlesnake 1846-1850 Vol I. pp. 323–325. It describes the first recorded observation and specimen collection of the Fawn-breasted Bowerbird Chlamydera cerviniventris:-

″Two days before we left Cape York I was told that some bower-birds had been seen in a thicket, or patch of low scrub, half a mile from the beach, and after a long search I found a recently constructed bower, four feet long and eighteen inches high, with some fresh berries lying upon it. The bower was situated near the border of the thicket, the bushes composing which were seldom more than ten feet high, growing in smooth sandy soil without grass.

Next morning I was landed before daylight, and proceeded to the place in company with Paida, taking with us a large board on which to carry off the bower specimen. I never before met with a more wary bird, and for a long time it enticed me to follow it to a short distance, then flying off and alighting on the bower, it would deposit a berry or two, run through, and be off again (as the black told me) before I could reach the spot. At length, just as my patience was being exhausted, I saw the bird enter the bower and disappear, when I fired at random through the twigs, fortunately with effect. So closely had we concealed ourselves latterly, and so silent had we been, that a kangaroo while feeding actually hopped up within fifteen yards, unconscious of our presence until fired at. My bower-bird proved to be a new species, since described by Mr Gould as Chlamydera cerviniventris, and the bower is exhibited in the British Museum."

Fawn-breasted Bowerbird at the bower

MacGillivray's work on the Cape York Peninsula was not without its challenges, however. The region was and remains largely inaccessible and remote, with dense rainforest and rugged terrain. MacGillivray and his fellow explorers faced a range of challenges, from intense heat and humidity to encounters with crocodiles and venomous snakes.

Despite these challenges, MacGillivray's work on the Cape York Peninsula remains a remarkable achievement. His collections and observations provide a critical foundation for our understanding of the natural history of the region, and his legacy continues to inspire and inform scientists and conservationists today.

In conclusion, John MacGillivray's collecting work on the Cape York Peninsula in Australia was a significant contribution to the field of natural history. His meticulous observations and collections of bird species provided important insights into the ecology and behaviour of these animals, and helped to establish the region as a critical area for conservation. Today, his legacy continues to inspire and inform scientists and conservationists as we work to better understand and protect the natural world.

Sunday 5 March 2023

Gould on the Tip of Cape York - some Species and Subspecies described by him.

Many birds were depicted and named by Gould as novelties but were later proven invalid being previously known to science either being extralimital or described elsewhere in Australia. Some of these are still attributed to him as subspecies. Read more below!

Original text researched by Rob Reed. Text edited and photos supplied by Doug Herrington. Both authors are guides for Birdwatching Tropical Australia and lead regular tours to the Tip of Cape York in December each year. You to can follow in the footsteps of Gould and other early explorers by joining one of our fabulous tours. More information is available here: 

Spectacled Monarch now ssp. albiventris: A specimen provided by James Cockerell from Cape York Tip, the albiventris subspecies was initially felt to be a separate species thus named by Gould 1866 as such but subsequently given back to Temminck in 1826. Gould writes: “…abundantly dispersed over Cape York…it is stationary, breeding on the edge of the scrubs. In actions it is a complete flycatcher, sallying forth to capture insects, returning to the same branch…”

Birdwatching Tropical Australia

Australasian Figbird now ssp. flaviventris: Named as a species by Gould in 1850 but subsequently found to be invalid and now considered a race (ssp. flaviventris) given as Gould, 1850. Gould writes in his letterpress that “…may be distinguished from its near ally the Sphecotheres vieillioti (now ssp. vieillioti) by the beautiful jonquil-yellow of its under surface”. We note that jonquils are used as a yardstick for colour which indicates the Eurocentric nature of bird collection and depiction of this era.

Birdwatching Tropical Australia

Fairy Gerygone now ssp. personata: Named by Gould as a species in 1866 having been sent by John and Frank Jardine of Somerset. He states “…as stated in my `Handbook`, all the known species of this genus are of small size, unobtrusive in colour…but little skilled in singing.” and “… (this species) …differs in so many particulars from all others yet discovered, that it is rendered conspicuously different…”. This was ssp. personata which was considered a separate species (from two others – the southern ssp. flavida and the New Guinea ssp. palpebrosa) for many decades but all were considered a single species by the RAOU in the early 20th century.

Birdwatching Tropical Australia


Marbled Frogmouth now ssp. marmoratus: attained by MacGillivray in 1849 both male and female specimens are figured in Gould who named it as a species but is now considered a race (ssp. marmoratus) named to Gould in 1855, ssp plumiferus having been named in 1832 to others in New Guinea. The modern Injinoo Ikya language word for frogmouth is Wukugu.

Birdwatching Tropical Australia

Tropical Scrubwren now ssp. minimus: Gould 1875. Named as species from Somerset collected by Cockerell in 1873.

Cape York Birding Tours

Wompoo Fruit-dove now ssp. assimilis: Gould 1850 was named to Temminck in 1821.

Cape York Bird Tour

Tawny-breasted Honeyeater now ssp. filiger: Erroneously named as a new species by Gould in 1850 but it was later clarified that Lesson had named the species from New Guinea in 1828.


Cape York Birding Tours

Mangrove Robin now ssp. leucura: provided by James Cockerell from Cape York with the information that this bird lives exclusively in mangroves and inhabits the north of Australia from at least Cape York to Port Essington (from where another mangled and unusable specimen was sent to Gould previously). Named as a novel species by Gould in 1869. It was not until later that it was realised that this bird had been named by Bonaparte from New Guinea in 1850.

Cape York Birding Tour

Metallic Starling: Previously named by Temminck in 1824. A nesting tree with about 50 nests was climbed by a local guide and a sack full of nests were obtained. Known as Mooter by the local Gudang tribe. Some were kept for study, but most had hatchlings which were thrown on the fire to be eaten slightly warmed by the captors.

Cape York Birding Tours

Papuan Frogmouth: Gould had representative specimens from New Guinea prior so was able to compare and found them identical. The male specimen was provided by MacGillivray and only the male is depicted in his Supplement.

Cape York Birding Tours

Yellow-billed Kingfisher (Poditti in Gudang language): Named as a new species by Gould but later given to Lesson from New Guinea in 1827. Intriguingly Gould refers to Lesson’s depiction (he did not have his skin to study) and dismisses it as a separate species. MacGillivray reports to Gould: “…appears to be rare…of the brushes (rain forest) … (I was) attracted by the call …three or four of us remained under the tree for twenty minutes…looking intently before I discovered it on a bare transverse branch…” 

Cape York Birding Tours

Trumpet Manucode ssp. gouldi: already known from New Guinea in 1826 this specimen was sourced from the CYT opposite Albany Island, which is actually Somerset. Owing to the size of its wings and the proximity of New Guinea, Gould presumed it was a migrant from that country which it is not.

Birdwatching Tropical Australia

Papuan Pitta: “Obtained by Cockerell…inhabits very thick viny scrubs…its mournful whistle…is very deceptive…a perfect ventriloquist.” and “…is much less noisy than (Noisy Pitta), its note is less varied too…appears to make…migration…arrives in Somerset in October and November and departs again in January and February; whither he knows not but suspects to New Guinea.” ( This was the first suggestion that the species is a migrant to the north of Australia. The current name for the Australian race of this species is named after Sylvester Diggles, a Brisbane ornithologist – Eryhtropitta macklotti digglesi.

Cabe York Birding Tours

Pale-headed Rosella: Collected at CYT and named by Gould in 1848 as a new species. This subsequently proved to be invalid having been named by Latham in 1790.


Birding Cape York

Olive-backed Sunbird: Collected by MacGillivray in 1849 and described as an endemic novelty in 1850 by Gould. This however was described previously north of Australia by Linnaeus in 1766. The Aboriginal name for this beautiful species recorded at the time of procurement was Terridirri.

Cape York Birding

Magnificent Riflebird: Contributed by MacGillivray in 1848 - 49 and figured and described by Gould. It was known to be described by Vieillot in PNG in 1819. The local Gudang Aboriginal name is listed as Yagoonya. “…inhabits the densest of brushes…Its cry is very striking…the old males…seen about the tops of the highest trees…utter cry at intervals of from two to five minutes…If a female is near (he) perches on a conspicuous dead twig…rapidly opening and closing his wings…(the) feathers…produce a loud rustling noise at the distance of hundreds of yards…” We believe this to be a very accurate description of this species behaviour and it takes some time to accumulate this amount of knowledge regarding its habits.

Cape York Birding tours

Original text researched by Rob Reed. Text edited and photos supplied by Doug Herrington. Both authors are guides for Birdwatching Tropical Australia and lead regular tours to the Tip of Cape York in December each year. You to can follow in the footsteps of Gould and other early explorers by joining one of our fabulous tours. More information is available here 

Monday 20 February 2023

New Species Named by Gould from the Tip of Cape York 1848 to 1869 - Part II

Here is Part 2 of Gould's New Species at Cape York.

Fawn breasted Bowerbird:

A bower was sent to London to be displayed in the British Museum. Named by Gould in 1850. Local indigenous name recorded at the time Tewinya. A detailed description of the bird’s behaviour near the bower was recorded which alluded to how difficult bowers are to locate and how secretive the bird can be.

Fawn-breasted Bowerbird at the bower

Yellow-breasted Boatbill:

Named by Gould in 1851 based on a single specimen which appears to be a male. The plate below shows a reproduction of the original depiction of Gould’s Yellow-breasted Boatbill

The Yellow-breasted Boatbill was “…observed it on the skirts of …dense brushes…making short flights…snapping at passing flies…returning to the same tree…no other samples were seen”  


Lovely Fairy-wren:

Collected in 1849 and named by Gould in 1852. He erroneously named the female and the male as separate species. This took some years to be clarified. Interestingly, James Cockerell who shot the “two species” which, he noted to be always in each other’s company, claimed them to be the same species and Gould refers to this fact in his supplement but refutes it.

White-eared Monarch: Gould received specimens from the Tip of Cape York and Dunk Island so assumed the species was present at all points between. There are 2 records on eBird in the last 7 years for the Tip of Cape York. A single specimen was collected by McLennan in 1914. The authors have not had the good fortune to see this bird at this location, nor did other recent guides. It was named by Gould as a new species in 1851.

Yellow-spotted Honeyeater:

Named by Gould in 1867 the specimen having been sent by John Jardine the original superintendent of Somerset. “…it belongs to a section of the genus of which three or four species are known…largest is Lewin’s Honeyeater…the smallest is Graceful Honeyeater…” (Gould 1869) Gould here perhaps unknowingly foreshadowing the issues separating these species for the next century and a half.

White-streaked Honeyeater:

Named in 1869 initially after the collector James Cockerell. Cockerell was the first native-born non-Indigenous Australian to collect for Gould, previously all had been British. This is the only true endemic Cape York species, all other endemics are found south of Cape York or in New Guinea.

Graceful Honeyeater:

Named by Gould in 1866 for the gracilis subspecies from Cape York. The Wet Tropics imitrix subspecies was named by Mathews in 1912. Following Nielsen’s landmark paper, this split is now accepted by the IOC as 2 separate species i.e., Cryptic Honeyeater now replacing ssp. imitrix. Graceful Honeyeater is now a Cape York species.

Chestnut-breasted Cuckoo:

A specimen was sent to Gould from Cape York by John Jardine of Somerset and named by Gould in 1867.

More interesting and entertaining historic birding information from Cape York and the Gulf coming soon!

Friday 17 February 2023

New Species Named by Gould from the Tip of Cape York 1848 to 1869 - Part I

This information was researched and written up by Rob Reed. The text has been edited by Doug Herrington who also supplied the photos. Rob Reed has had the opportunity of living for 7 years in the area in all seasons and has developed familiarity with the local birds and their habitats and was readily conscripted to assist with guiding for Birdwatching Tropical Australia. Doug Herrington, owner guide for Birdwatching Tropical Australia has conducted many tours and private trips to the region alone and together with Rob Reed and has extensive experience with the species to be found here. 

John Gould

 Ten birds were obtained and named for the first time as novelties (new species known to science) and are still attributable to Gould.

Northern Scrub-Robin (Drymodes Superciliaris):
Attained in 1849 by MacGillivray and named to Gould in 1850. MacGillivray writes “…after watching near the nest for some time, one of the owners appeared, and was procured…it (the second bird) approached me within three or four yards, hopping with sudden jerks…it uttered no cry…” 

Our experience with sighting of this birds has similarities – it can be very difficult to find as we find the calls to be quite ventriloqual in nature but is quite confiding if you keep totally still. The Aboriginal name when procured in 1849 was Trokaroo. 
Northern Scrub-Robin

Buff-breasted Paradise Kingfisher (Tanysiptera Sylvia):

Named by Gould in 1850.  The Gudang name was Quatawur. The Gudang people of the area were also able to enlighten MacGillivray as to the nest arrangements “…3 eggs in a rainforest termite mound…” MacGillivray also suspected this bird was present on the south coast of New Guinea as he had seen a head on a necklace of a local tribesman there which had close resemblance. “…plentiful…frequents the dense bushes…first made aware of its presence by the glancing of bright colours as it darted out with a rapid arrow-like flight…disappeared in an instant…its cry…uttered when perched on a bare transverse branch…its look-out a shy suspicious bird, and one well-calculated to try the patience…”. We, and others who have stalked this bird, believe this to be a very accurate description and feel his frustration.

Buff-breasted Paradise Kingfisher

John Jardine, superintendent at Somerset (Injinoo name Pulu) published an account of this bird which, despite his highly intransigent relationship with the local indigenous peoples, shows how thoroughly reliant collectors and observers were on these peoples for accurate information. “My collection comprises more than one hundred species of land-birds…” and “To my constant enquiries to the blacks for this bird I was always told by them that when the wind and rain came from the north-east the birds would come, and their prediction was verified to the letter. They also say the birds come from Dowdai (New Guinea).”

Part II will be published soon!


Sunday 5 February 2023

Wet Season at The Iron Range - January 2023

I had a great trip to Iron Range this January with 2 groups of 4 people each.

Group 1 - Carol Popple, Andrew Crouch, Paul Newman and Steve Popple

 I arrived with the first group of 4 people on 4th January.

Group 2 - George Appleby, Chrissy Freestone, Richard Alcorn and Margaret Alcorn

I had a wonderful day off between groups and managed to catch up with a few locals and get in a bit of photography for myself.

Papuan Pitta photographed on my day off

We soon got into the pattern of the weather this year. It was much wetter than usual and seemed to rain most afternoons from around 2.30pm until around 5pm so we did not get in much birding in the afternoons.
A rainy afternoon at Green Hoose

We sometimes had a few showers in the evenings also but it was mostly okay for spotlighting.

Immature Green Python found whilst Spotlighting

Green Python on one of the spotlighting evenings

We stayed at the Green Hoose where there is plenty of good birding on the property. We breakfasted at 6am each morning and then headed out to the rain forest or the scrub enjoying a great variety of birds, insects and reptiles. Lunch was back at the Green Hoose at around noon followed by a bit of a break and then back out into the bush for more birding if it was not raining too hard.

Black-faced Monarch

Red-cheeked Parrot

White-streaked Honeyeater

We found the morning birding to be much more rewarding than later in the day. Our lovely hosts at Green Hoose had dinner ready for us each evening at 6pm. We generally headed out for a bit of spotlighting after dinner. The wet weather seemed to be bringing out a lot of Green Pythons but putting a bit of a damper on the Marbled Frogmouth which where difficult to find in the usual spots!

Northern Death Adder found on the road at night

Marbled Frogmouth

Besides the Rainforest we also visited Chilli Beach, Quentel Beach and Mango Dam.

Scoping shorebirds at Chilli Beach

Lovely tranquil Mango Dam

I found Iron Range very busy this year but did run into a lot of interesting people, particularly R. Bruce Richardson and Ian Lock.

Bruce and myself at Lockhart Airport

As I neared the end of the two weeks I was really looking forward to getting home and getting dry but as usual, wishing I could stay a bit longer in this awesome place!

Saw-shelled Turtle we rescued from the road.

Monday 4 October 2021

Seven days to Iron Range and back


Departing Mossman at 7 am on day one we has a brief stop at Mary Farms to see if we could get a few photos of the Australian Bustard in the morning light. We found a few good birds and then came across this male who posed beautifully for us.

Australian Bustard

We drove on to Lakeland downs where we stopped for a delicious local coffee before carrying on to Artemis Station for the Golden-shouldered Parrots. They are easy to see near the feeder at the main entrance when they come to feed in the early morning and late afternoon.
Golden-shouldered Parrot

Golden-shouldered Parrot

Golden-shouldered Parrot

A few of the other birds in the area where the Black-backed Butcherbird and both species of Kookaburra. The dam down the road had Wandering-whistling Duck and Comb-creasted Jacana on the water.
Black-backed Butcherbird

From here we headed on to Musgrave Station where we spent the night. On the road to Coen the following morning we spotted the nest of a Black-breasted Buzzard. It was lovely to get perched photos of a bird we usually see flying. We were also lucky enough to witness a nest changeover between the male and female!

Black-breasted Buzzard

Black-breasted Buzzard

Black-breasted Buzzard

Black-breasted Buzzard

Black-breasted Buzzard

After a brief stop in Coen to top up the fuel and check out the Black Flying Fox colony we continued on to Lockhart River and the Green Hoose where we spent two nights.  Over the next two days we explored the Iron Range and Lockhart river area.We investigated a tree hollow where fifteen Eclectus Parrots where making an awful racket. They seemed to be challenging some Sulphur-crested Cockatoo for the nesting hollow.

Eclectus Parrot male 

Eclectus Parrot

Eclectus Parrot female

Eclectus Parrot female

One of out best sightings of the trip was an hour spent near a Magnificent Riflebird perch. We watched him come and go, saw him display twice and had a female come to the perch once. 

Magnificent Riflebird

Magnificent Riflebird

Magnificent Riflebird

Magnificent Riflebird

An evenings spotlighting produced some great results. Five Marbled Frogmouth, several Large-tailed Nightjar and the iconic Green Tree Python. 

Marbled Frogmouth

Interestingly this Green Tree Python was set up in his hunting stance about 8 metres above ground level. By the size of the bulge in its body it must have been recently successful in finding a meal.

Green Tree Python

We spent our last two nights in Portland House at Portland Roads. Here we explored the mangrove edges for Torresian Kingfisher and Fawn-breasted Bowerbird. We also witnessed the magnificent Metallic Starling murmuration at Chilli Beach

Bower of the Fawn-breasted Bowerbird

Below are images of some of the birds we found in the area including a very confiding Yellow-billed Kingfisher.
Tawny-breasted Honeyeater

White-eared Monarch

Rufous Fantail

Yellow-billed Kingfisher

Yellow-billed Kingfisher

On our return trip we again passed the tree where we observed the large group of Eclectus Parrots and Sulphur-crested Cockatoo. It seems that the Cockatoo may have won the day as they where the only birds in evidence. 

Sulphur-crested Cockatoo

We encountered a lot of road kill between Coen and Musgrave Road House with many raptors enjoing a free lunch. This Wedge-tailed Eagle was one of many we saw along with Whistling and Black Kite.

Wedge-tailed Eagle

On our last day our route took us through Lakefield National Park. We stopped briefly to view the nesting Red-Goshawk from an appropriate distance. With the strong winds in the area we hope the same fate as the chick blown from the nest last year does not repeat its self.

Red Goshawk

We had really rewarding views of the Red-headed Honeyeaters on Marina Plains with a most confiding male providing everyone with great photo opportunities.

Red-headed Honeyeater

Red-headed Honeyeater

Red-headed Honeyeater

Red-headed Honeyeater

Nifold Planes was also good to us with a large flock of Black-throated Finch interspersed with several Masked Finch cumming in to drink in the middle of the day.

Masked Finch

Black-throated Finch

Several water holes also contained a few Brolga which were also good to see. The male and female in this trio below where where performing a little dance for us.


We left Lakefield and proceeded onward through Laura with a brief stop to view the rock Quinkan rock paintings, arriving back in Mossman by 6 pm. A most enjoyable trip!