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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
An awesome feature of Bowra Sanctuary are the large numbers of Budgierigars and Zebra Finches.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There is a 12km “nature trail” at the town of Windorah which gave us even more new birds.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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”).
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.