Toorbul, Sep 2020

Summary: Renowned high tide roost for shorebirds, but worth visiting for other birds in the area too

Dates of visit: Sep 21 and 23, 2020

My first visit to Toorbul was a disaster. Had I not done my research properly? Gone on a bad day? I wasn’t sure, all I knew was that I was exploring the main esplanade (a road helpfully named “Esplanade”) that runs along Pumicestone Passage without seeing the hundreds of Bar-Tailed Godwits that had been reported on eBird just days before. Those specks way out there on the sandflats might be birds, who knew?

Executive summary: go at high tide, not low tide!

Yup, I paid the price for not prepping for my visit beforehand. At the southern end of the Esplanade, there were some Galahs and a noisy flock of Rainbow Lorikeets in the trees, but I remained confused. Sure, there was a sign saying something about “Keep off this area, it’s for birds”, but I couldn’t see any birds and it wasn’t clear what area was being referred to. Gah!

Instead, I opted to drive right round to the south side of the headland, where Google Maps proclaims a certain “Freeman Road” gives way to “Moffat Esplanade” which goes all the way around. (Spoiler alert: there’s no such esplanade down there). When I arrived, this spot looked more like a boat ramp.

I started off down an unofficial-looking trail to the east that ran behind a couple of private properties; one had a barbed wire fence with a couple of Rainbow Bee-Eaters perched on it. This trail widened into a muddy road for a while, with bush on the left and mangroves on the right, before a troubling sign saying “Private Property” pulled me up short. Any path that might have been publically accessible was starting to become boggy and impassable anyway, and the whole thing felt like you just weren’t supposed to be there.

There were a few neat birds, however: a Mangrove Gerygone, a couple of Peaceful Doves, a Yellow-Faced Honeyeater, and a vocal female Leaden Flycatcher. I headed back. There was a dirt/sand road going into the bush that I detoured down for a little while, again not knowing whether it was private or not, where I picked up a Rufous Whistler and a Rufous Fantail.

What a bust. No shorebirds anywhere or even access to the shore.

After visiting Buckley’s Hole and Sheep Station Creek Conservation Park over the next day or so that I was in the Bribie Island area, I checked eBird for Toorbul again and realisation started to dawn: the main Toorbul hotspot was called a “High Tide Roost”… my brain was eventually joining the dots. I needed to visit at high tide.

Bear in mind this was before the most excellent Bird Places of Moreton Bay guide was published, which makes it clear: “High tide roost best visited an hour each side of high tide, but on king tides shorebirds will use Kakadu Beach on Bribie. Best months September to late April.”

So basically what happens is the birds forage at low tide, scrounging up various foods left by the retreating tide or in tidal pools, and gather together at high tide, which is the best time to see them as they’re all bunched into a small area on the shoreline. The same thing happens in Brisbane at Nudgee Beach, Lytton/Manly, etc.

This was my first time looking for shorebirds, so I had no idea about this stuff.

Anyway, on Sep 23rd after my visit to Sheep Station Conservation Park I drove back to Toorbul when it was nearing high tide, and sure enough, at the end of the Esplanade where there was nothing two days before, a great number of birds had assembled! Two Ranger-looking folk were spying them through a spotting scope; the nearest birds were maybe 30 or 40 metres away.

Toorbul High Tide Roost – this is as close as you’re allowed to go to the sandy roost area

The majority of the birds were Bar-Tailed Godwits, identifiable with their long slightly upturned bills of pink and black. There were at least 40 Eastern Curlew, the largest shorebird of all, with long down-curving bills (distinguishable from Whimbrels with their shorter bills of the same general shape). I took a ton of photos, knowing I’d have to scrutinise them later to figure out what I was seeing, and to pick out the more unusual birds in the great congregation. Sure enough, the photos revealed Great Knots, Red Knots, and Grey-Tailed Tattlers. This is the thing with shorebirds – if you care about what you’re actually looking at, then you do need to spend the time sifting through the sometimes large numbers of similar-looking species.

As time marched on more and more waves of these shorebirds flew in, until the small sandy roost area was covered in them. At one point a Pelican even waddled imperiously into shore, looking huge compared to the other birds.

Now I should mention here that I had parked further up the Esplanade – maybe a kilometer – and had strolled down on foot to the main roost. It turned out this was well worth doing, as I was able to spot lots of birds not only on the rapidly-disappearing sandflats – Pied Oystercatcher, White-Faced Herons, some stray Godwits and Egrets and Ibis – but also along the grassy foreshore. From here you can see houses over on Bribie Island as well as the bridge across to it. There were Magpie-Larks, Rainbow Lorikeet, Mistletoebird, Peaceful and Spotted Doves, and even a clutch of Royal Spoonbills that seemed to be sleeping in someone’s front yard (albeit, their property was quite large)!

Then on the powerlines and fencelines along the road were found Common Myna, Spotted Dove, Double-Barred Finches, Welcome Swallows, Rainbow Bee-Eaters, and White-Breasted Woodswallows.

The walk back to the car was equally rewarding, too, with some of those birds still hanging around, but also a Striated Heron fly-by, a Grey Shrikethrush and Rufous Whistler in the trees fringing the shore, then a Black-Faced Cuckooshrike and Olive-Backed Oriole performing some aerial hunting from the top of a dead tree. Pretty amazing for a sleepy seaside town.

In summary, Toorbul ended up delivering lots of birds – not only at the famed shorebird roost, but a good variety of other birds along the esplanade too. And although I don’t recommend the south side of the headland, at least I discovered something of what was there; it’s not always going to turn out peachy when you go off blindly exploring, right?

eBird

Checklist for Sep 23 (36 species)
Hotspot: Toorbul High Tide Roost (196 species)
Nearby hotspots of note: Toorbul (160 species), Buckley’s Hole (232 species), Godwin Beach (153 species)

Pluses and minuses:
+ Excellent spot for shorebirds like Godwits and Curlews…
+ …but also very good for general birding along the esplanade too
+ Pleasant seaside town vibe
– South side of Toorbul headland disappointing/confusing for birding
– Tide and time of year important for shorebirds – go at high tide between September and April!

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