West Queensland Trip Jul-Aug 2021

A birding-enthusiastic friend and I decided to take four weeks to travel deep into western and north-western Queensland to see and photograph as many birds as we could. The experience was very worthwhile and we came away with both amazing memories and incredible images of the birdlife we encountered.

Let’s Get Out Of Here: Brisbane to Bollon via Goondiwindi

We stopped briefly at a couple of selected spots in Durikai State Forest, but most of the interesting birding on the way to Goondiwindi was of the opportunistic-roadside variety.

Galahs in evening light against overcast skies, roadside on the way to Goondiwindi
Apostlebirds and Red-Rumped Parrots foraging for spilt grain at a roadside rest area on the way to Goondiwindi

Our first major (non-opportunistic roadside) birding stop was at Goondiwindi Botanic Gardens, which didn’t disappoint; a Spotted Bowerbird was our first lifer bird for the trip but we observed nearly 40 species there.

Red-Winged Parrot
Spiny-Cheeked Honeyeater at Goondiwindi Botanic Gardens

We free-camped at Wallam Free Camp at the town of Bollon, west of St George, which had a creek line and surprisingly good birding (and plenty of other campers). We got our first look at a Little Woodswallow there, though good photos of that bird would come much later.

Intimate encounter with a fearless Restless Flycatcher at Wallam Free Camp

Bowra Sanctuary: Birding Paradise

Bowra Sanctuary, just outside Cunnamulla, was our next destination for three days and one we were eagerly anticipating. We saw many lifer birds there and had some incredible moments including an exciting sighting of a Grey Falcon.

The Cockatiel welcoming committee, on a tree just inside the Bowra entrance gate
Plumed Whistling Ducks at “The Tank” waterhole, near the Bowra Sanctuary campground
Black-Tailed Nativehen scurrying for cover at Sawpits Waterhole, Bowra Sanctuary
Galahs at Sawpits Waterhole, Bowra Sanctuary
Bourke’s Parrot at Sawpits Waterhole, Bowra Sanctuary
The tiny but pretty Diamond Dove was a regular fixture most places we birded, including Bowra
Red-Capped Robin near Stony Ridge, Bowra Sanctuary
Black-Faced Woodswallow at Bore Drain Walk, Bowra Sanctuary

One of the traditions at Bowra Sanctuary is the evening “bird call” where birders (including one or more of the volunteers that manage the site) tally up the day’s sightings. This is a good way to know which birds can be found where within Bowra’s expansive area.

Southern Whiteface near Stony Ridge, Bowra Sanctuary
Chestnut-Rumped Thornbill was the most dominant thornbill at Bowra Sanctuary
A Grey Falcon streaks over the campground at Bowra Sanctuary
The wonderful Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo at Bowra Sanctuary
Plenty of Fairywrens at Bowra Sanctuary including White-Winged, Splendid, and this Purple-Backed Fairywren
Australian Ringneck, one of many birds to see on the Bore Drain Walk at Bowra Sanctuary
Brown Treecreepers were incredibly friendly at the Bowra Sanctuary campground areas
There was a small group of resident Emus at Bowra Sanctuary

An awesome feature of Bowra Sanctuary are the large numbers of Budgierigars and Zebra Finches.

Male Zebra Finches near the campground at Bowra Sanctuary
Zebra Finch at Bowra Sanctuary
You really have to wonder what these Zebra Finches are thinking, playing around in a Whistling Kite’s nest… WHILE THE WHISTLING KITE IS WATCHING
In one Budgie flock we counted 325 birds!
Budgies taking a well-earned rest
Wild Budgies at Bowra Sanctuary

To Lake Bindegolly: Just Down The Road…

A lunchtime stop at Paroo River crossing just west of the town of Eulo was worthwhile for the birds we found there.

Great Egret at Paroo River, Eulo
White-Plumed Honeyeaters are very dominant in many areas of western and central Queensland; this one is taking a dip in Paroo River, Eulo

Our next port of call was Lake Bindegolly, nearly 1000km west of Brisbane and well and truly in the outback. It was therefore a surprise to find a huge body of beautiful blue water filled with birds (including Pink-Eared Ducks, Silver Gulls, Pelicans, Cormorants and many more) in this otherwise semi-arid area. To get to the best bird viewing area, however, takes a 7km round-trip walk over monotonous, sandy terrain… which we did, twice.

Black-Shouldered Kite near the main road at Lake Bindegolly
Unusual-looking birds at Lake Bindegolly – Brown Songlarks
Chestnut-Crowned Babbler… still a thrill to see a Babbler anywhere that isn’t the more common Grey-Crowned
This juvenile Red-Capped Plover snuck up on the unsuspecting bird photographer while they were snapping Red-Necked Avocets much further away
Red-Necked Avocets, Lake Bindegolly
Caspian Terns squabbling in mid-air at Lake Bindegolly
The incredible but difficult to photograph Orange Chat, at Lake Bindegolly

Outback Road Trip: Quilpie / Windorah / Longreach / Winton

We stayed at the small outback town of Quilpie and explored nearby Lake Houdraman and surrounds, finding a variety of Woodswallow species.

White-Browed Woodswallow near Quilpie
Restless Flycatcher hovering at Lake Houdraman
Apostlebirds, Crested Pigeons and a Spotted Bowerbird foraging on a street corner in Quilpie

One is usually always in “birding mode” on this kind of trip, which means scrutinising every raptor sighting and every bird-on-a-fencepost as one drives the hundreds of kilometres between towns. For us this yielded a number of lifer birds.

Crimson Chat near the roadside, 10km north of Thylungra Station; it turned out to be the only sighting of the male on our trip
Australian Bustard, one of four crossing the highway. Apparently they’re also called the “Plains Turkey”.

There is a 12km “nature trail” at the town of Windorah which gave us even more new birds.

Black Honeyeater at Windorah Nature Trail. A diminutive bird, its plaintive call was more than a little heart-rending.
Banded Lapwing at Windorah Nature Trail. We’d tried to find this bird in the Ipswich area the month before, should’ve just gone to Windorah…

Birding does take you to some strange locations, such as the Longreach Sewerage Ponds, and the Winton Wastewater Treatment Plant. However, these can be very rewarding as the lagoons at such sites are magnets for birds in the outback.

Pink-Eared Duck leading some Grey Teals at Longreach Sewerage Ponds
Eurasian Coot, one of many easily-spooked waterbirds at Longreach Sewerage Ponds
Australian Reed Warbler hunting methodically by the water’s edge, at Winton Wastewater Treatment Plant
The very secretive Spotted Crake, lurking in the reeds at Winton Wastewater Treatment Plant. Our first ever crake!
Little Grassbirds are very easy to hear but fiendishly difficult to spot, at Winton Wastewater Treatment Plant

A curious feature of outback towns in west and central Queensland seems to be their ability to attract all sorts of birds, who treat the towns like their own. Raptors – especially Black Kites – circle over the streets in most towns. We saw a Grey-Crowned Babbler in a tree on the main street of Mt Isa, and Brolgas strolling nonchalantly through Winton, and Quilpie was full of Galahs.

Close-up encounter with very tame Brolga at Winton

Iningai Nature Reserve at Longreach is a former cattle area slowly being reclaimed by nature and hosts quite a few bird species; a noisy group of Red-Tailed Black Cockatoos was the biggest highlight there.

Peaceful Dove at Iningai Nature Reserve, Longreach
Great Egret at Iningai Nature Reserve, Longreach
Red-Tailed Black Cockatoo at Iningai Nature Reserve, Longreach

Cloncurry and Mt Isa: Now Things Are Getting Interesting

The birding hotspot of Chinaman Creek Dam at Cloncurry provided another awe-inspiring “big blue lake in the outback” moment, with many birds of all varieties present; it also heralded the return of Brown Honeyeaters in numbers after being absent for much of the trip thus far.

White-Plumed Honeyeater at Chinaman Creek Dam, Cloncurry
Masked Woodswallow, yet another variety to add to the list, at Chinaman Creek Dam, Cloncurry
A Black Kite with dinner on the run, at Chinaman Creek Dam, Cloncurry
Black Kites were a very common sight in most of the places we visited. This one was at eye level over the dam wall at Chinaman Creek Dam, Cloncurry
Another White-Plumed Honeyeater shot, as if to emphasise just how ubiquitous this little bird is…

We bush camped at Rosebud Station about 30km east of Mount Isa, and even though it was only a brief overnight stop, we were fortunate enough to meet more lifer birds. The Hooded Robin sighting there was extra special as we had been on the lookout for this bird for quite a while by then.

Hooded Robin, at Rosebud Station
Varied Lorikeet, one of the many birds interested in Desert Bloodwood trees, at Rosebud Cattle Station

The 120km from Cloncurry to Mount Isa is more interesting to the eye with undulating bushy terrain compared to the very flat pastureland or mulga trees we’d gotten used to.

The city of Mount Isa itself is a sprawling metropolis compared to most other towns in the outback, but also features two excellent birding hotspots: the Pamela St Water Tanks location right at the edge of town, and the huge Lake Moondarra.

Grey-Headed Honeyeater at Pamela St Water Tanks
The wonderful and elusive Kalkadoon Grasswren, at Pamela St Water Tanks site in Mt Isa
Silver-Crowned Friarbird at Pamela St, Mount Isa.
The insanely gorgeous Painted Finch, Pamela St Water Tanks, Mount Isa

We didn’t have much time to explore Lake Moondarra, really just a couple of hours in an afternoon, and it is a massive area to explore. I picked up a Horsfield’s Cuckoo there (a bird I’d never seen before), and there were a ton of water birds, Rainbow Bee-Eaters, Friarbirds and many more (erm, including Peacocks, at the picnic areas). At the very end of the day we also caught a glimpse of a Spinifexbird.

Little Woodswallow, one of many hundreds at the end of a typically sunny day at Lake Moondarra, Mount Isa
Little Pied Cormorant, Lake Moondarra, Mount Isa

Lawn Hill National Park: This Can’t Be Real… Can It?

Our next big destination, a mere four hours drive away, was Lawn Hill (Boodjamulla) National Park. We made a stop at a “microwave tower” site about 30km north of “The Isa”, principally to hunt down grasswrens, but as usual when you’re trying to find one specific bird, you instead find three others.

Wedge-Tailed Eagle north of Mount Isa
Our one-and-only sighting of a Black-Tailed Treecreeper, 30km north of Mount Isa. Would love to see this bird again!

The shortest way into Lawn Hill from the south is via an unsealed and often bumpy road – mostly due to corrugations, but also patches of dreaded bulldust. Getting stuck behind gigantic plumes of dust from a slow-moving caravan as your vehicle shudders and shakes around you isn’t my idea of fun, but the annoyance was soon made up for with some stunning birding.

Spotted Harrier along the roadside into Riversleigh, accompanied by high-flying Woodswallows

A stop at the O’shannassy River crossing proved to be not just the highlight of the day, but one of the big highlights of the whole trip, with a raft of finches, budgies and other birds (an Azure Kingfisher made an appearance) all converging on the water for drinking and bathing.

Incredibly vivid colours of the Crimson Finch, O’shannassy River crossing
A single Painted Finch came down to the river crossing to join in the fun
Thirsty budgies
Yellow-Tinted Honeyeaters: just like White-Plumed Honeyeaters, only further north

Lawn Hill National Park itself contains about a dozen campsites which generally need to be booked well in advance. You know you’re in a new place entirely when you see lifer birds as soon as you arrive (White-Gaped Honeyeater, Buff-Sided Robin) and then as soon as you blearily emerge from your tent in the morning (Red-Collared Lorikeet, Great Bowerbird).

Red-Collared Lorikeet. The Lawn Hill NP ranger mentioned they’d had unexpected rain the month before, which caused more trees to flower, bringing in the birds.
Buff-Sided Robin at Lawn Hill. The friendliest of all robins… ever.
White-Gaped Honeyeater, the most numerous of the larger honeyeaters at Lawn Hill

Most of the best bird encounters we had were on trails not far from the campground/day use area – along the gorge, and on the Constance Ridge track. Away from the water the birding is more of the “low percentage” variety: we tried to find a Sandstone Shrikethrush, for example, but couldn’t. The gorge is absolutely, ahem, gorgeous, a scarcely believable oasis of green palms and cool waterways in an otherwise rocky, sun-baked landscape.

Lawn Hill gorge: come for the birds, stay for the scenery
Blue-Winged Kookaburra on the excellent Constance Ridge track
Red-Tailed Black Cockatoo along the Constance Ridge track
Banded Honeyeater along the Constance Ridge track
Great Bowerbird, warning us away from his bower, Constance Ridge track

We agreed that the best overall bird encounter of our entire trip was here on the Constance Ridge track, when a small group of Grey-Crowned Babblers went psycho on a tree by the side of the track, pretending to be woodpeckers and completely oblivious to our presence.

Babblers are intensely sociable, but not often this approachable by humans
“Watch and learn, junior, one day you’ll be able to do this too.”
Aha! Rewards for persistence in digging into the bark.

A few kilometres from the gorge lies Adel’s Grove, a campground of a very different ilk altogether, with hundreds of sites and hundreds of people (and hundreds of noisy bats at night!) On the edge of Adel’s Grove is a “nature trail” which has some riverside and drier country birding that proved surprisingly productive.

Juvenile Crimson Finch at Adel’s Grove nature trail
Crimson Finch… can’t get enough of those magical colours
Rufous-Throated Honeyeater at Adel’s Grove: another day, another lifer honeyeater…
Let’s not forget the Brown Honeyeater either… at Adel’s Grove
Black-Chinned Honeyeater – supposedly widespread across Australia, but I sure hadn’t seen one till now…
Long-Tailed Finch. Not our first sighting (that was at O’shannassy River), but definitely our best. At Adel’s Grove nature trail.

The Long Road To The Tropical North

I won’t bore you here with details of our mechanical difficulties and our ignoble return to Mount Isa to hire a different car while our original 4WD got repaired, suffice to say we salvaged what we could of our ambition to hit up the Gulf of Carpentaria with a whirlwind dash all the way to the end of the road: Karumba, via Cloncurry (again), Burke and Wills Roadhouse, Flinders River crossing (bush camping) and Normanton.

“Roadside Raptor Watch” proves its worth with a sighting of the impressive Black-Breasted Buzzard, given away by its short tail compared to other raptors
A random roadside stop in unpromising country shows up a… female Crimson Chat?!?
Stopping at the Burke and Wills Roadhouse found us face to face with a large group of Apostlebirds. The middle bird here was unfortunately missing a leg, and the other birds were helping to preen it.
Apostlebird at Burke and Wills Roadhouse.
Be prepared to drive through clouds of locusts on the long road north. This specimen spotted at Flinders River crossing.
Flocks of Brolga become more numerous as you drive north, but the prepared birder knows to also look for birds with more red down the neck, which are the rarer Sarus Cranes!

A vital stop on any diligent birder’s itinerary is Muttonhole Wetlands, on the north edge of Normanton. There are a few choice spots here, my favourite was a waterhole just off the main road after crossing Norman River, where we saw Pelicans, Herons, Radjah Shelducks, Black-Necked Storks, Rainbow Bee-Eaters, and a ton of Black Kites.

Pelicans using the “feeding frenzy” technique, Muttonhole Wetlands, Normanton
Radjah Shelduck, Muttonhole Wetlands, Normanton
Black-Necked Stork, Muttonhole Wetlands, Normanton
Rainbow Bee-Eater, Muttonhole Wetlands, Normanton

High Karumba! The Road Doesn’t Go Any Further…

Maybe it was the too-high expectations I had for birds at Karumba. Maybe it was the disappointment of not seeing a Star Finch. Or maybe it was destroying my shoes in icky mud on the Karumba-to-Karumba-Point Heritage Walking Trail. Whatever it was, I came away from the area a little let down. Like a lot of birding sites, however, it takes time for its treasures to be revealed.

Australian Pratincole… another roadside lifer, and another bird to get excited by
Little Corellas “infesting” the town… according to the Karumba locals
The Yellow White-Eye is an Australian north coast specialist, and a fun bird to watch hopping through the trees

We had a Ferryman Cruise booked for the morning we stayed in Karumba, which involved a small boat and four passengers and two crew pottering along the mangrove-lined Norman River. The crew weren’t shy in using pishing and bird calls to bring the birds in close.

Red-Headed Honeyeater
Could this be my new favourite bird? The wonderful Mangrove Robin, on Norman River
Best view we obtained of the White-Throated Whistler male. The females were much more accommodating, but less vividly coloured.

A known birding hotspot in Karumba is the strip of bush between the airport and the sea, which we had a very enjoyable stroll along, picking up a variety of birds and observing Brolga and Black Kites meandering across the airstrip runway.

Size comparison: Black Kite (top) and mighty Wedge-Tailed Eagle (bottom) – in Karumba
Osprey was devouring its fishy meal the entire time we walked the track
Old favourites #1: Willie Wagtail. Found everywhere we went.
Old favourites #2: Bar-Shouldered Dove. Although there were plenty of doves and pigeons on our trip, Karumba seemed particularly teeming with them.
Black-Tailed Godwits on the Karumba ocean shoreline

Our final day at Karumba had us squeezing in some more birding with stops at the farm dams and waterholes on the Karumba Road leading out of town, searching unsuccessfully for Star Finches. We were consoled by a very close encounter with a Horsfield’s Bushlark, a bird we had only briefly glimpsed on tussock-filled roadsides previously.

From Wikipedia: “Alternate names for the green oriole include the Australian yellow oriole, yellow oriole and yellow-bellied oriole.”
Corellas? You want Corellas? Well here’s some Corellas for you.
Ladies and gentlemen, the world’s most obliging Horsfield’s Bushlark. Though also with a naming problem, as eBird calls it the Australasian Bushlark.

Bladensburg National Park: Makes The Winton Pub Look Mighty Attractive

Could Bladensburg National Park, a former cattle station 17km south of Winton, keep our birding enthusiasm alive as we set out upon the long, long road back to good old Brisbane? Expectations were dampened upon entering when we saw that it was somewhat sparse country and very, very dry; we happened to be visiting just when Longreach and Winton were expecting a string of 35 degree days (in August, which is technically winter!). That would surely mean the astute birder would simply need to station themselves by a handy water hole and just wait for the birds to turn up in their droves? Right?

Painted Honeyeater, a lifer bird for us and one with a beautiful vocalisation. 1.9km north of Skull Hole turn off, Bladensburg National Park.
Black-Faced Woodswallows were the most numerous of the many woodswallows we found in the outback, yet somehow we never got tired of seeing them. 1.9km north of Skull Hole turn off, Bladensburg National Park.

According to Tim Dolby and Rohan Clarke’s excellent Finding Australian Birds: A Field Guide, one simply had to go to the road that turns off immediately before Skull Hole, and find the dry creek a couple of km down, and walk 300m, and… a sign proclaimed “Vehicles Prohibited”. So we walked it. In 35 degree heat. With no water.

But the book was right, and we did find the fabled group of Hall’s Babblers right where they were supposed to be – along with Hooded Robins, Spiny-Cheeked and Singing Honeyeaters, Crested Bellbirds, and even Varied Sittellas. Not bad for such dry terrain, and surely rewarded by the lunchtime trip back to Winton to “rehydrate” at the pub.

Cockatiel flying to find water, near Skull Hole, Bladensburg National Park
Singing Honeyeater, one of the many many varieties of honeyeater available for viewing in Australia
Varied Sittella, probably the Black-Capped race
Whistling Kite at Bladensburg National Park. Wherever you go in the outback, a raptor is never far away.
We’d seen a few Spinifex Pigeons by now, but the best photo opp was when we drove out of Bladensburg National Park

We Go To Emerald, Because Why Not

The surest way to escape the heat wave was to head east, so we did precisely that, stopping only at Barcaldine Common for an appointment with Splendid Fairywrens. Oh, and at the fossicking area west of Emerald where we saw (a) a couple of Wedge-Tailed Eagles; (b) a couple of Australian Bustards; (c) no precious gems.

Splendid Fairywren – definitely an aptly-named Australian bird, at Barcaldine Common
Superb Fairywren on the fence of the motel at Emerald

We again tried our hand at this “birding” malarkey at Emerald Botanic Gardens, which was a lush and green spot sandwiched between a river and two busy roads in Emerald, and featured mainly birds that we were very familiar with from Brisvegas (merely substitute “Yellow-Throated Miner” for “Noisy Miner”).

Yellow-Throated Miner at Emerald Botanic Gardens
Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo at Emerald Botanic Gardens
A happily placid Kooka at Emerald Botanic Gardens
Rainbow Lorikeet on a grevillea on the side of a busy street in Emerald

Carnavon Gorge: All The Birds You Know And Love

We’d both been to Carnarvon Gorge before in past lives, before getting all caught up in this so-called birdwatching business, so we knew the bushwalking was good but didn’t have much of an idea of how the birding was. It turned out to be quite fulfilling, even though they were nearly all birds we were familiar with, with great sightings on the Mickey Creek track as well as the main Carnarvon Gorge walk.

White-Winged Chough at the day use area, Carnavon Gorge
Many White-Browed Scrubwren were present on the main gorge trail
White-Naped Honeyeater post-bath
Guess who? (If you said “Red-Browed Finch”, you are right…)

An unexpected bonus was coming across a flock of 16 Squatter Pigeons on the road out of Carnarvon Gorge, a species that we’d not seen despite a few (short!) trips “out west”.

Squatter Pigeon

Last Chance For Birding: Roll On Up To Oakey

We made a short but surprisingly satisfying stop at Injune Lagoon, where we saw a fair number of Blue-Faced Honeyeaters, some Brown Quail, Pale-Headed Rosella, Spiny-Cheeked Honeyeater, Weebills and Peaceful Doves.

Blue-Faced Honeyeater

Then it was a case of getting the distance under our wheels all the way to Toowoomba, reserving the last morning for a thorough exploration of the country roads around Oakey, known to be good for White-Winged Fairywren and (dare we say it) Ground Cuckooshrike. Spoiler alert: we didn’t see the Cuckooshrike, but we left happy anyway.

Galahs and Corellas getting in on the sunflower seed action
The amazing little floofball that is the White-Winged Fairywren, Devon Park Boundary Road, Oakey
Why have just one White-Winged Fairywren when you can have two?
Double-Barred Finch
Apostlebirds
Yellow Thornbill on Sabine Road

And Then We Got To The End

After something like 5000km of driving and four weeks of spectacular birding including around 60 lifer birds for each of us, we arrived back in Brisbane, having gained a solid appreciation for the bird species found all across central and western Queensland. It was incredibly interesting to understand how the different species varied across different latitudes and habitats: the dominant honeyeater in one region changed completely if you went a few hundred kilometres north. And an admiration of these birds inevitably comes with a cognizance and respect for the outback with its enormous swathes of mulga, spinifex, pastureland, and life-providing creeks and waterholes.

And sure, we dipped out on a number of birds on our target list – Red-Browed Pardalote (heard but not seen at Bladensburg NP), Ground Cuckooshrike, Yellow Chat, Black Falcon, Pied Honeyeater, Carpentarian Grasswren, Rufous-Crowned Emuwren, Northern and Arafura Fantail, Pictorella Mannikin and Zitting Cisticola. That just gives us an excuse to go back and do it all again one day.

2 thoughts on “West Queensland Trip Jul-Aug 2021

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