[A stop on the West Queensland Trip Jul-Aug 2021 trip]
Chinaman Creek Dam, 3km west of the outback town of Cloncurry, is a big blue lake that might be the first big body of water you encounter if you’re driving from the east through Winton and Longreach and its endless flat dry pasturelands. But not only is it an amazingly refreshing sight to see, it is also teeming with birds.
We visited twice, on July 20 and 29, both times in the afternoon. On the first visit we first popped into the “Chinaman Creek Lookout” which can be found by turning left immediately after you leave the Barkly Highway onto Chinaman Creek Dam Road (yes, you might be getting a big “Chinaman Creek” vibe here…) The lookout is worth a stop, with views across Cloncurry and the Cloncurry River, amazing rock formations, and tantalising glimpses of the lake.
Once at the lake, there’s free-for-all parking near a little picnic/playground area; the seasoned outback traveller no doubt will try to pick a spot to park in the shade.
There’s a boat ramp here and, both times we visited, a pair of immature Black Kites holding court on the swings. (Word of caution, there can be freshwater crocodiles in the water, including one rather large one, so maybe re-think your swimming plans…)
We could hear a lot of honeyeater sounds – principally Brown Honeyeaters – so opted to try the dry sandy track a little away from the water first. This area proved to be really pumping with bird calls.
Here we did indeed find Brown Honeyeaters, as well as White-Plumed Honeyeaters. A few lorikeets whizzed by, but they were too fast to identify – when we returned on our second visit, we saw a few Varied Lorikeets, so they were probably those.
The next bird we spotted was a Flycatcher, which we would have thought was a Restless Flycatcher except we were now on the border between the Restless and Paperbark Flycatcher regions – with the Paperbark being the recently-split species that occupies the north of Australia; eBird shows only the Paperbark species at this site, so we have to conclude it’s one of those. Apparently region is the best way to tell what Flycatcher you have, as it’s almost impossible to tell from field markings (one has to start looking at the length of whiskers around the bill and suchlike).
One of the main tree types that were attracting these birds was the Desert Bloodwood, whose flowers produce a high-energy nectar. A Little Friarbird was also getting in on that action.
Wandering down to the lake shore gave us a look at some water birds – Pelicans, Darters, Grebes and Little Black Cormorants. Hardheads were the most numerous, though we only surveyed part of the lake, which stretches quite far. On the near shoreline we followed an Intermediate Egret which was intently and quietly hunting.
There was plenty happening in the sky too, with woodswallows gliding around. We spotted a White-Browed, a White-Breasted, and a Black-Faced, before zeroing in on a new one we hadn’t seen before: a Masked Woodswallow. That completed the full set of Australian Woodswallows for me, which was rather happy-making!
A Black Kite was also flying about; one gets inured to the sight of these common birds in the outback, but I’m glad we took a few snaps, because it turned out the bird was doing a bit of eating-on-the-wing, of what looked like a fish.
A pair of Whistling Kites flew by in formation, and we found the Paperbark Flycatcher again too, this time hovering over the grass bordering the water. In and around that grass we also caught a glimpse of our first ever Grey-Headed Honeyeater, using the grass as cover to take surreptitious sips of water.
It was a great first visit – a couple of lifers, and plenty of birds in general, even though we didn’t explore far – really just the small area to the west of the picnic area.
Our second visit just over a week later was also a successful one. We decided this time to head to the dam wall, though not before observing the same Black Kite pair lording it over the playground area, and a raven being seriously hassled by a couple of Willie Wagtails. In the bloodwood near the car park a couple of Varied Lorikeets were feeding, too.
We tracked a few Singing Honeyeaters before walking up the road that eventually goes behind the dam wall. Around this area were some Purple-Backed Fairywrens, and from the concrete buttress at the top of the dam we got awesome views of a Black Kite circling around the dam wall, approximately at eye level.
We’d seen plenty of Black Kites by then – and I mean, probably hundreds – but it was still a thrill to see one up that close and not have to be craning one’s neck up.
Some Double-Barred Finches were hanging around this area too, doing a little preening, and looking across towards the river to the east there was a very inviting-looking wetland area which held an Egret and a Black-Tailed Nativehen – actually our second (and was to be our final) sighting of this bird on our whole trip.
All very good birding so far – but what was the other side of the lake to be like? Near the water were a lot of the usual suspects, namely White-Plumed and Singing Honeyeaters, though further along the shoreline we spied a Black-Necked Stork, which wasn’t keen on staying there with humans approaching, even though we thought we were being quiet and non-threatening. Exploring a little of the spinifex grass a few metres from the shoreline we found a Spinifexbird, which was neat, but like our other encounters with this bird, only allowed for the briefest of photo opportunities as it played a merry game of hide-in-the-grass.
We debated how far to walk, and checking the map it seemed it wasn’t practical (or even possible?) to circumnavigate the entire lake, which was a shame. Looking at a satellite image later it seemed like it might be doable, but it would take a lot of walking. The day was fading for us, though, and as much as we were enjoying the last of the “golden hour”, we had to reluctantly retrace our steps back towards the dam wall and the picnic area. We did see a couple more birds along the way: a Mistletoebird and a perching White-Browed Woodswallow, and further off, a huge flock of what we estimated to be 120 Little Corellas.
Our second visit, being a little longer and more wide-ranging, found us 43 species, which we thought was pretty decent. A lot of the same water birds were there, like the Pelicans and Hardheads, and the trails were equally easy to navigate and explore.
Our two visits to Chinaman Creek Dam barely whetted my appetite for birding at this fantastic site. I’d love to go back there in the morning light, and also explore further around the lake’s edge to see how far I could go. Back off the shore there are more trails and roads that might also be worth a look, and there is the Cloncurry River nearby which looks idyllic and lush too. You could even take a boat out and watch some birds from the water. I really struggle to think of any downsides to this spot as a great birding location.
Hotspot: Chinaman Creek Dam (166 species)
Checklists for these visits: July 20 (29 species), July 29 (43 species)
Pluses and minuses:
+ Great birds of all types to be found
+ Exceptionally pleasant lake setting
+ Plenty of trails and terrain to explore
– A very long way to circumnavigate the entire lake, should you wish to
– Apparently there are crocodiles