Oxley Creek Common, Aug/Sep 2020

Summary: Premier birding site in Brisbane with reliably great bird encounters and wonderful photography opportunities.

Dates of visit: Aug 29 and Sep 3, 2020

Hmmm, how to follow up an awesome birding trip to Townsville?

Why not a visit to Oxley Creek Common, arguably the best birding site in Brisbane? And yet somehow I hadn’t ever been before.

Turns out that Oxley Creek Common is easily reached from Sherwood Road, and a neat circular car park lets you get out birding pretty much immediately.

There’s a big red shed at the start, and the long creek-side track which forms the backbone of the area starts just behind it. A small side path leads down to a small jetty on the water, but the main path has a little gate and then it’s basically bird heaven!

On my first visit, the birds I saw on the main path included a Kookaburra, an Olive-Backed Oriole, a Grey Shrikethrush, a White-Browed Scrubwren, as well as Lewin’s, Scarlet, Brown and Blue-Faced Honeyeaters all within the first kilometre or so.

The thing with Oxley Creek Common is that it is one long (grit-surfaced) path, which is both good and bad: you have to share the path with other birders, dog-walkers, runners, etc, so there isn’t much scope for broad exploration; on the other hand, the narrowness of the path and the fenced paddocks and grass (on the left as you walk south) and the trees and creek (on the right) that line it means that the birds are typically quite close. Case in point: on my first visit, a vocal Grey Butcherbird sat on a fence post for an amazing photo.

Oxley Creek Common is Fairywren heaven, particularly for Superb Fairywren and Red-Backed Fairywren. These birds, as well as the frequently-sighted Double-Barred and Red-Browed Finches, will often flit between branches and the wire fencelines. The fences and fence posts provide perching spots which can make for great photos – for the best photos, one is always looking for a bird on an exposed branch or surface of some kind, ideally with a large distance to the background.

On the side spur – called “Willie Wagtail Way” – that goes out to Jabiru Swamp/Pelican Island, I saw a Golden-Headed Cisticola, which must be very reliable as I have seen them here on multiple subsequent visits as well. On this first trip I also saw a Tree Martin – still the only time I have seen this bird – and, sure enough, a Willie Wagtail. Looking out across the Swamp showed up some Swamphens, and a Cattle Egret sitting atop a placid sheep. On the walk back I saw Magpies, a Spangled Drongo, and a group of Noisy Miners; all common enough birds, but such is the magic of this site that encounters like these seemed imbued with charm.

I revisited five days later, but the weather was very different: quite dark and overcast. First shot of the day was a Grey Butcherbird hunched in the light rain, and then I pottered down for a quick look from the jetty and saw a bird that I later identified as a Buff-Banded Rail – a lifer, and a very atmospheric photo showing it foraging in the shadowy wet mud.

So far so good, but due to the gloomy cloud cover, I was soon to find that any shot taken of birds up in the trees tended to become a black silhouette. I dimly remembered something about “Exposure” settings and hastily Googled how that worked on my camera (yes, I really should have known beforehand). Messing with the Exposure Compensation worked wonders and I haven’t looked back since: one does need to be vigilant in adjusting the exposure to suit the conditions, but it can really rescue what would otherwise be unusable conditions for photographing birds. (Better still, if you are shooting in RAW format, to some extent you can adjust the exposure later if you make a mistake).

This second visit made for my first Brown Quail sighting, which I knew from reports were prone to scurrying busily across the trail, and I was able to grab a shot. Similarly for a Spotted Dove and a fabulously strutting Magpie, but – apart from spotting an Olive-Backed Oriole clutching a Monarch Butterfly in its bill – it was mostly Fairywren and Golden-Headed Cisticolas that kept me entertained after that, with amazing close encounters on the fencelines (mainly on Willie Wagtail Way). Swamphen, a Pied Stilt, White-Faced Heron, various ducks, and then Lewin’s, and Scarlet and Brown Honeyeaters rounded out the visit, for a total of 39 species in all – 10 more than the previous visit.

You might be wondering what lies south of the junction (which is 1.3km from the big red shed at the start of the trail) that goes out to Pelican Island. I’ve only walked this far once, and it’s another 700m or so to the area known as “Secret Forest”, probably on account of the majestic Hoop Pines in this bend in the creek. It’s quite an appealing area, and is less busy than the northern part of the Common, but I didn’t see many interesting birds there.

Looking back at my photos from these two trips – where I was still using a 300mm lens (I have since upgraded to 500mm), I’m amazed at how well some of them turned out. It’s a testament to just how good this location is for high-quality bird encounters. And good birders will see at least 50 species – sometimes over 60 – here.

I’m guessing most birders reading this already know of the wonders of Oxley Creek Common. If you don’t, get out there right now! Very soon after sunrise is the best time to go, because the sun comes up over the open paddocks, so it gets light quite quickly – and you’ll tend to avoid the non-birding folk and perhaps be the first to see an interesting bird before people scare it off (I’m thinking of a particular Pheasant Coucal, but that’s another story for another blog post…)

BirdsQueensland’s 2011 guide to Oxley Creek Common.

Long term plans for the area https://oxleycreek.com.au/

eBird hotspot (223 species)
Checklists for these visits: Aug 29, Sep 3
Notable nearby hotspots: Sherwood Arboretum, Cliveden Reserve

Pluses and minuses:
+ Unparalleled diversity of birds for a city location
+ Reliable, often incredible close encounters
– Long single trail with only one main side-spur (paddocks are all off-limits)
– Have to share the path with runners, dog-walkers, riders

Thoughts from revisiting: Oxley Common Revisited.

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