Muttonhole Wetlands, Normanton, Jul 2021

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

Muttonhole Wetlands is an enormous (9000 hectare) conservation area just across the Norman River from the township of Normanton in Queensland. It is a must-stop if you’re passing through on a birding trip, as we were on the way to and from Karumba in July 2021.

We had stayed at a bush camping area south of Normanton just off the highway at Flinders River (also not a bad spot for birding), and so didn’t have far to travel the next morning to get to Muttonhole Wetlands. On the way we found some Sarus Cranes on the side of the road, distinguishable from the more common Brolgas by the red colouration extending longer down the neck.

There is a small body of water to the south of the main road, just to the east of the bridge, which I’ve called “Roadside Lagoon”, which is a natural place to stop first given the easy access and a sheltered information hut. From there you can walk right around the Roadside Lagoon, which we found quite worth doing.

The Pelicans were the most obvious of the water birds, foraging in a large group.

There were plenty of other water birds too: a couple of Grebes and Darters, Little Black and Little Pied Cormorants, three Royal Spoonbills, and even a Black-Fronted Dotterel. There were also a few Egrets, and a bird that we checklisted as a White-Necked Heron but were pulled up by an eBird reviewer saying it was a juvenile Pied Heron (given away by the yellow bill and yellow legs). That made it a lifer bird for us, as obviously we hadn’t had the experience to identify that one yet!

Radjah Shelducks were the main duck which were a pleasure to observe, as they are fairly rare in Brisbane.

The dominant tree in this area is called a Guttapercha, and though they are not very densely spread, are still used by plenty of birds to forage in, hunt from, or as staging posts on the way to or from the water. A Rainbow Bee-Eater and Black-Faced Woodswallow were prime examples, though we also saw some Zebra Finches (apparently frequently thirsty birds, as their seed diet is quite dry), Galahs, a White-Bellied Cuckooshrike, a couple of Doves, two Red-Backed Kingfishers, both Brolga and Sarus Crane, a Black-Necked Stork, Red-Backed Fairywrens and a White-Winged Triller. Phew! Not bad for a one and a quarter hour visit.

Common species like Ravens, Willie Wagtails and Magpie-Larks were all present too; we actually counted 18 Magpie-Larks in total. We had seen even more on our Flinders River overnighter, and were getting serious Magpie-Lark Fatigue (that’s a new medical term we coined).

The raptors were also in attendance, most notably nine Black Kites circling very brazenly (cue hypothetical questions on whether slow-moving water birds would be able to avoid or defend from an attack by a hungry Kite…). There was also a Whistling Kite or two in the air.

The Roadside Lagoon quickly rocketed to the top of my “birding places that are great and also immediately accessible” list, which then led us to wonder what else we might find within the huge expanse of the Muttonhole Wetlands. So we crossed over the highway to the northern side, and proceeded to navigate the tangled network of sandy road trails towards Goose Lagoon, the only other specifically-named eBird hotspot within the wetlands region.

It is almost too large an area. Even Goose Lagoon is huge and – at least in the dry season – can be approached from nearly any direction. One tactic we saw used was another car which seemed to be mostly “car birding” – rocking up to a spot, scoping the nearby birds, and moving on fairly quickly. We didn’t want to do that (too… twitchy!), so we parked near the water and explored on foot. It was after 10am and getting hot and windy, so not the best conditions, but enough to see hundreds of Magpie Geese in the water.

Brolgas, Radjah Shelducks, Grey Teals, Pied Stilts, Comb-Crested Jacanas, Grebes and many Dotterels could all be seen, though being a large body of water, most birds were seen only distantly. A spotting scope or very high magnification optics would have been ideal here, especially if one was meticulous about counting exactly.

Goose Lagoon would probably reward a long, thorough exploration, but that would take much time (which we didn’t have too much of… we had to get to Karumba!). As it was, we did see plenty of birds in a short time, but it didn’t have the nicely compact and honestly more pleasant vibe of the Roadside Lagoon.

We returned briefly to Roadside Lagoon on our way back from Karumba on July 29, and saw many of the same birds – even the same flock of Pelicans were fishing in the same way they had two days previously.

The highlight of this very short stop (just 15 minutes) was a look at a Yellow White-Eye, which we’d first seen in Karumba a couple of days before, and a Black-Necked Stork that took to the air fairly quickly upon seeing us, but that still yielded some very nice in-flight shots. Ya gotta love a huge bird that you don’t have to get too close to in order to see it filling up your camera’s viewfinder!

Summary

Muttonhole Wetlands is a worthy birding site both for its size and the variety of bird species that can be found there. Its lack of fragmentation and sheer size make it one of Australia’s most important wetland areas. The Roadside Lagoon is an easily accessible spot for a short rewarding visit while the rest of the wetlands is enormous and could be explored at leisure by more hardcore birders. While there isn’t anything much in the way of facilities, and one needs to be careful on the sometimes rough sandy/dirt road trails, the town of Normanton is very nearby for most of what you might need.

eBird
Hotspots: Muttonhole Wetlands (111 species), Goose Lagoon (103 species)
Nearby: Normanton (201 species)
Checklists for our visits: Roadside Lagoon (36 species), Goose Lagoon (23 species), Roadside Lagoon revisited (14 species)

Pluses and minuses:
+ Lots of good water birds, bush birds and raptors
+ Roadside Lagoon is a pleasant and very accessible location for a short or medium visit
+ Normanton is just across the river
– Needs a lot of time to truly do justice to such a huge area
– Not much shade available – can get hot and windy
– Have to be careful of highway traffic if birding near the main road

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