Bowra Sanctuary, Jul 2021

[A stop on the West Queensland Trip Jul-Aug 2021 trip]

Bowra Sanctuary is a 140 square kilometre nature reserve and former cattle station near Cunnamulla in Queensland and is managed by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy. It is a well-known and important hotspot for birding in Australia.

Bowra is usually open from May to October each year and allows day visitors as well as providing some accommodation options. We camped in a tent for three nights.

Bowra is pretty easy to get to, as well… as long as you can get to Cunnamulla. The birding begins as soon as you arrive (actually, for us, even before we reached the front gates, as we stalked an Australian Hobby for a while on Humeburn Rd). Just inside the gates we saw a “welcoming committee” of Cockatiels, which was nice.

One has to wash down one’s vehicle when arriving at the main house/campground area, and when we were there, there was also a requirement to sign out and back in if you left this area by vehicle to explore other sites at the station.

If you do stay overnight, 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. The method used is to only count the maximum number of a species seen in one location. The bird call is a good way to know which birds can be found where within Bowra’s expansive area, and to help contribute your own sightings to the record.

Campground Area / Lagoon / Bore Drain Walk

Plenty of great birding is available within and around the campground area. We found Brown Treecreepers were incredibly approachable; one even fell asleep right in front of us near the lagoon. A resident group of Emus trotted through on our last day, and over the three days we were there we had Spotted Bowerbirds, Zebra Finch, Budgies, Masked Lapwings, Willie Wagtails, a Red-Backed Kingfisher and Major Mitchell’s Cockatoos all visiting the camp. It isn’t quite the completely-throw-out-the-rulebook vibe of O’Reilly’s Retreat, but it’s not bad.

The most exciting sighting at the campground was surely a Grey Falcon streaking over; we were tipped off by another birder that it had just been seen and sure enough it showed up again, just long enough to grab a couple of hasty shots.

Our first afternoon had us staking out the lagoon area that is right next to the campground, where we saw a scattering of water birds – namely two Pied Stilts and a handful of Black-Fronted Dotterels.

Then it was a case of waiting for other birds to turn up and have a drink or a dip; White-Plumed and Singing Honeyeaters, Zebra Finches and Yellow-Throated Miners were all up for that.

We saw some Budgies, Australian Ringneck, Red-Capped Robin, Common Bronzewing, Bluebonnets and a Little Corella while we strolled around the lagoon, though we would get much better photos of most of these birds in the coming days. Still, we were starting to get an idea of what birdlife was around.

The nearby “bore dam” had eleven Plumed Whistling Ducks on its verge, looking resplendent in the late afternoon light, and we again saw White-Plumed and Singing Honeyeater here.

Our other main adventure near the campground was the discovery, the next afternoon, of the Bore Drain Walk. We liked it so much we did it again the following afternoon, and the morning after that!

A decent part of that walk seemed to provide endless birds – the first afternoon we saw a huge flock of budgies; in one photo we counted 325 birds.

Zebra Finches were also numerous here, as were Black-Faced Woodswallows. With so many birds and a little patience, it wasn’t hard to get good close-up photos.

A Whistling Kite family had a large nest along the walk, and at one point we saw Zebra Finches playing around in the nest directly underneath the kite. Talk about living dangerously.

There was no shortage of Fairywrens either, with White-Winged and Purple-Backed varieties around.

You just never knew what was going to happen next on this walk: a Yellow-Billed Spoonbill might sail in and land high on a tree above the lagoon; a Crested Bellbird might leap up from the ground and pose on a branch; large groups of Apostlebirds and Chestnut-Crowned Babblers could noisily cross hop across the track at any minute, and at ground level you could spy Ringnecks and Mulga Parrots foraging. Amazing, really, when you consider the habitat is pretty dry and the bush not very dense.

Sawpits Waterhole

For our first full morning at Bowra Sanctuary we decided to dedicate ourselves to the area known as Sawpits Waterhole; some sleuthing on eBird made it sound like a good spot to find some interesting species. Sawpits is around 4km from the Bowra homestead and campground area on an easily drivable dirt road (as long as it hasn’t been raining and turned the road to mud, that is!) There’s no signage so it was a case of saying “this spot looks good” and parking wherever.

We were quite close to the waterhole, and both the bushline and water held Yellow-Throated Honeyeaters, White-Plumed Honeyeaters, a Darter, a Yellow-Billed Spoonbill, some Australian Wood Ducks, a Ringneck, Spotted Bowerbird, and a few sleepy budgies.

A few hundred metres further the road ends in a little loop and a small sign announces the start of the “Mulga Walk”. At this turnaround point, however, despite the few trees and quite dry conditions, we found a few birds: a Red-Capped Robin female, which was soon joined by a male, and a couple of Bourke’s Parrots showed up too – a complete first for us. We had to be quite patient with the Bourke’s Parrots as they seemed quite skittish, and their subtle pastel colours were difficult to capture in the slanting winter morning light. In the end we got probably the best pictures we could hope for.

Other birds there were White-Plumed Honeyeaters (of course) and a couple of Diamond Doves (also, we were learning, a ubiquitous bird).

The Mulga Walk started off dry and warm, with no birdlife to see, until a few hundred metres where a sign pronounced “The End”. However, just beyond that sign was a denser stand of trees and we knew from the previous evening’s bird call that Hall’s Babblers might be found in this area, so we explored dutifully.

We saw another Spotted Bowerbird and a couple of Spiny-Cheeked Honeyeaters, as well as a Grey Butcherbird, before tracking down the fairywren sound to a group of Splendid Fairywrens. At that point we weren’t actually aware we were even in a region where we could see Splendids, but our first look at the resplendently vivid male bird had us hooked! It really is an incredible bird to behold.

We did track down some Hall’s Babblers, with their characteristic dark black head stripes, though it was a struggle to get close enough to photograph them; they move quickly and noisily through the lower and mid canopy.

Finally upon leaving Sawpits we had a good view of a Whistling Kite. The area, including the Mulga Walk, was well worth doing.

Stony Ridge and Gravel Pits

The area known as Stony Ridge (Stony Lookout on eBird) at Bowra Station is aptly named: the top of the ridge has stony, hard ground and is home to the very dominant mulga tree. Again we pulled over where it seemed most opportune, and went traipsing about not really knowing what we would find. There were no paths as such, and with a lack of obvious landmarks and somewhat uniform surroundings, we had to be careful not to get lost.

It is also somewhat “low percentage” birding territory: there aren’t many birds, so one ends up chasing any sound or flitting sight one can see. The upside is that when you do find a bird, it’s kinda exciting!

Such was definitely the case with the male Red-Capped Robin we saw, which totally stole the show amongst glimpses of Splendid Fairywrens and Chestnut-Rumped Thornbills.

The following day we returned but spent the time exploring slightly to the east of Stony Ridge, where the ground is much softer. We birded for a long while without seeing anything at all except a far-off pair of Red-Capped Robins, however once we happened upon a creek bed area things really picked up.

Here we found a couple of Southern Whiteface, a new bird for us, as well as Chestnut-Rumped Thornbills (the dominant thornbill at Bowra), and a group of Diamond Doves.

A few Striated Pardalotes were around too, one of which was nest collecting. Sadly, we didn’t see any Red-Browed Pardalotes, which we were also looking hard for.

If stony mulga country is low percentage birding, then the area of Bowra known as the Gravel Pits must surely qualify as very low percentage birding. We were on the hunt for Chestnut-Breasted Quail-Thrush which were reported on the evening bird call, but apart from a couple of Chestnut-Rumped Thornbill seen soon after we arrived, we saw nothing at all, and heard only a few far-off peeps.

If, like us, you need to see at least a few birds every now and again to keep your enthusiasm up, then the Gravel Pits (and to a lesser extent Stony Ridge) may test your resolve. Best perhaps to approach it with low expectations and be pleasantly surprised (hopefully!) with whatever birds turn up.

Western Paddocks and Sandy Creek

At the far west side of Bowra, at least 10km from the campground area, is a large expanse called the Western Paddocks, which also includes a waterhole called the Western Dam. We spent a little while here in the middle of the day and saw a few finches and budgies but not too much else that was interesting – with the exception of a Crested Bellbird who hopped onto the road in front of our car and then led us on a merry chase through the bush, which also led to a fleeting Little Buttonquail encounter. Also I forgot to take context photos, so I’m not going to bother writing it up in any more detail than this:-)

More intriguing was our ad-hoc stop at Sandy Creek crossing. Again, a spot near water (not much, but enough to attract birds) provided a lot more action than drier/stonier terrain. We initially stopped for the Zebra Finches and Budgies present, which we were entertained by for a while, until a Little Eagle flew in close overhead.

Further exploration of the riverside showed up a Red-Backed Kingfisher, Brown Treecreeper, White-Plumed Honeyeaters (noting that the one photographed has a leg band) and a bunch of Willie Wagtails. It seems wherever you go, there’s always a Willie Wagtail there.

Sometimes our instincts for good places to explore more thoroughly served us well; other times not so much. Such is the birding life.

Summary

There are abundant birds at Bowra to satisfy any birder – bush birds and raptors especially, but enough water birds to be interesting too. Being able to stay on-site was a big plus, though in winter note that it can get very, very cold overnight. Great birding is to be had close to the campground and day area, but you’re mostly on your own outside of there, with minimal signage and trails; sometimes roads are closed due to recent rain, or for other reasons: while we were there, the roads to Gumholes Waterhole remained shut for example. Nevertheless, overall, our time at Bowra was incredibly rewarding.

eBird:
There are many eBird hotspots picking out different sites within Bowra Sanctuary. Below are just the main ones.
Bowra Wildlife Sanctuary (220 species)
Bowra Wildlife Sanctuary–Lagoon Camping Area (144 species)
Bowra Wildlife Sanctuary–Bore Drain Walk FRS (122 species)
Bowra Wildlife Sanctuary–Saw Pit Waterhole (126 species)
Bowra Wildlife Sanctuary–Mulga Walk (24 species)
Bowra Wildlife Sanctuary–Stony Lookout (74 species)
Bowra Wildlife Sanctuary–Sandy Creek (62 species)

Pluses and minuses:
+ Many awesome birds and wonderful photographic opportunities
+ Great birding encounters within easy walk of campground/day parking
+ Massive station to explore
– Have to drive around to the different sites within Bowra to see everything
– Roads within Bowra are closed after any rain at all
– Some spots are better than others, may not be easy to know where to focus your efforts

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