Karumba, July 2021

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

Karumba: they call it “the outback by the sea”, a fisherman’s paradise way up in the Gulf of Carpentaria. But the town also has a solid reputation for birding.

Does it make any sense to cover the whole area in just one write-up? For various reasons, I’m going to say “yes, yes it does”. This is because the birding hotspots are generally small and widely dispersed around the township; there’s no one place you could really point to and say “that’s where to find all the birds in Karumba”. Here I’ll cover these various sites one by one.

General Orientation

Karumba is split into two parts: the township of Karumba to the south, which lies on the Norman River and features the main shipping infrastructure, boat ramp, etc, and Karumba Point, which lies at the mouth of the Norman River and includes the airport and the well-known Sunset Tavern. The Tavern – or most places along the Point coastline – is a good spot to watch the sun setting into the ocean at the end of the day. It is about 7km by road to travel between the two localities, but only about 2.5km by foot if using the Karumba to Karumba Point walkway (see below).

Despite its remoteness, spend a little while at Karumba and you’ll find there is everything you need here (a couple of caravan parks, notably), along with a pretty relaxed, touristy vibe. I’d go so far as to say that the town has an “end of the road” feel about it.

Roadside into and out of Karumba

The roadsides of Karumba Road, to the east of the town, especially the nearer 10km of them, can be quite good for birds. The first significant bird we spotted here – apart from Brolgas, which seem to be quite common in the grassy fields – was an Australian Pratincole, which was on our target list and awesome to finally get to see for real, with its intent look and super-sharp long wings.

Tim Dolby’s comprehensive guides to birding in Australia mention a spot immediately north of the intersection of Karumba Road and Karumba Point Road, where there is a small dam that can be good for Star Finch and other finches and mannikins. That spot did look promising, but it was fenced off in a way that inhibited exploration or close approach. Down the road slightly there are a couple more waterholes that – even though also fenced off – had water which was nearer to the road, and it was here we had some of our best roadside Karumba birding. We checked this site a few times as we came and went around Karumba, and often found various combinations of Zebra and Double-Barred Finch, Diamond Dove, and a few other birds. We scrutinised the flocks of finches for anything more exotic, but didn’t find anything.

Though at the same spot, we did see a Horsfield’s Bronze-Cuckoo, huddled on the ground by the fenceline, and a ridiculous number of Little Corellas flocking in the field beyond.

Another waterhole very close by yielded the amusing sight of a Willie Wagtail sitting on top of a kangaroo’s back while it was drinking. At the time we visited Karumba (very much in the dry season), there were quite a few locusts around, and we did see some birds, like a Black-Faced Woodswallow, hunting them.

On our way out of town on our last day, we stopped at a larger farm dam, snuck through the fence (don’t tell anyone…) and were rewarded with a few neat bird encounters, such as an Australasian Bushlark – also known as a Horsfield’s Bushlark, a species we’d only seen briefly flitting around roadside grasses up till then. This bird sat very placidly for us and didn’t seem bothered by the mad clicking of camera shutters. It was everything you could want from an encounter with a wild bird.

We were lucky enough to see another Pratincole, which wasn’t letting us get anywhere near, while on the raptor front a White-Bellied Sea-Eagle was getting seriously hassled by a couple of Black Kites. Just a regular outback scene, then.

The roadsides definitely delivered, and eBird records at the time we were there also showed sightings of Star Finch, which we never found. Whether you jump fences to get closer to the birds or waterholes is your choice, but the waterholes and farm dams are well worth scouring for your target species. It does feel a bit weird stopping at random places along the road to photograph a tiny bird with huge road trains barrelling past, but such is the birding life, I suppose.

Karumba to Karumba Point Walkway

We were pretty interested in doing the 2.5km Karumba to Karumba Point Walkway, also known as the Town Walk, which offers a shortcut between the two split halves of the town.

We started from Karumba (the south) and immediately got a look at a small group of Yellow White-Eyes in the trees above the walkway entrance, methodically searching the branches for food. A bit like Varied Sittella in that regard, though they obviously look a lot more like Silvereyes. This was a lifer bird moment for us and a great start to the walk.

Unfortunately we didn’t see much from then on. Perhaps it was because it was afternoon on a pretty warm day, but we just weren’t finding any birds – well, apart from the very vocal Brown Honeyeaters – and the side-tracks we followed in hopeful fashion merely left us with sticky wet mud caked onto our shoes.

The walkway also doubles as a cycle way but it is not always paved – towards the north-western end we had to schlep through even worse mud than before, and basically that ended up ruining my shoes. We did see an Australian Bustard, a little unexpectedly, but it wasn’t enough to save the walk from being a waste of time on the birding front.

Perhaps one needs better footwear and to more thoroughly explore the mangroves, and/or go early in the morning, but we ended up disappointed. We actually saw the most birds at the start and finish points of the walk – the Yellow White-Eyes at the start, and some cute White-Breasted and Black-Faced Woodswallows and a couple of Pipits at the end.

Norman River – Ferryman Boat Cruise

The Ferryman Cruise on the Norman River is a bit of an institution at Karumba and we took the 9am boat (there is also a popular sunset cruise). The boat doesn’t seat many people, so it’s advised to book ahead.

Once on the river there is a touristy spiel about the various prawn, fishing, and mining industries going on in the town before the boat closes in on the heavily mangrove-lined riverside. We saw a few different kites including a Brahminy Kite, then a Little Egret, and more than a few Sacred Kingfishers, their bright blue plumage discernible in the thick growth. Then the boat pulled in hard to the mangroves and the crew (of two) were not at all shy about pishing and playing bird calls via phones at decent volume in order to bring in birds, and being mangrove species, it worked.

Photography was a challenge in the dense foliage, but we managed to get good shots of both male and female Red-Headed Honeyeaters in particular. After trying a few different sites – looking to get some looks at White-Throated Whistlers, which we could hear well but not see – the cruise crossed over to the north side of the river, again plowing into little breaks in the mangrove and playing calls. We were lucky enough to have a Mangrove Robin come close by and perch for quite a while, and a female White-Throated Whistler was very accommodating too, but the male remained more standoff-ish.

The cruise was well worth the time and money. I shudder to think how much more time and sweat would be required to get such encounters if you had to explore mangrove areas by foot. The morning cruise was heavily about finding birds, which isn’t readily apparent from their advertising, so take note if you expect something else from a boat ride along the river.

Airport and coast

There is a coastal trail to the north of the airstrip at Karumba Point that we found made for a pleasant afternoon birding stroll.

On our way to the airstrip area we happened upon a Wedge-Tailed Eagle and managed to get a shot of it in flight with a Black Kite alongside, a great way to highlight the size difference between these two raptors. Speaking of raptors, there were Black Kites (and three Brolga) on the actual airstrip itself (visible through the chain link fence).

The sandy/dirt trail here basically follows the edge of the airstrip, though it does keep going a good while further if you’re so inclined. The trail is really a road that allows for vehicle traffic and occasionally a 4WD rolled past us. There’s a lot of grass and mostly shorter coastal-style trees on the path (Yellow White-Eyes were again found in one of these trees), and partway along was a large light pole with an Osprey on top, unhurriedly feeding on a fish in its claws. It was still at it when we checked in on it much later, though it had attracted a pair of Silver Gulls by that time.

We happened upon a Cisticola that flushed from the grasses along the trail, but without a call we couldn’t tell if it was Golden-Headed or a Zitting Cisticola, which are also found in the area. One definitely identified bird was the Bar-Shouldered Dove, which seemed ubiquitous around Karumba, outnumbering the also-common Peaceful and Diamond Doves. (Seriously, the Bar-Shouldered Doves were everywhere we went in Karumba… except deep in the mangroves). A Willie Wagtail, some Magpie-Larks, a White-Breasted Woodswallow and a White-Bellied Cuckooshrike rounded out the list of more common bush birds we found.

This being the coast, there were plenty of birds on the shoreline rocks and exposed mudflats, or flying across the water. We walked back along the beach rather than the dirt trail, and found a large group of Black-Tailed Godwits, which was cool because we’d only ever seen Bar-Tailed Godwits back in Brisbane. There were White-Faced Herons, Caspian and Gull-Billed Terns, Pied Stilts, Pied Oystercatchers, four Eastern Curlews and also quite a few Pelicans – a good mixture of various water and shore birds.

Around the Town

We stayed in the town of Karumba (the southern section, not Karumba Point) and so had an opportunity to see birds on the streets there. A Green Oriole was a highlight – that was actually a lifer for one of us, and White-Bellied Cuckooshrikes weren’t shy there either – one sat on a powerline right above us. A huge and noisy flock of Corellas was not unusual for a country Queensland town, though one of the locals called them an “infestation”.

Behind Clarina Street there is a patch of bush and a small sandy lagoon that we explored briefly, finding Royal Spoonbills, Radjah Shelducks, plenty of Grey Teals, a Glossy Ibis and even a juvenile Striated Heron. This area is fairly messy bush without paths and isn’t particularly conducive to pleasant birding, but does go to show that there are plenty of birds in all sorts of little pockets around the town.

Summary

Although we found plenty of good birds and had some good experiences – the Ferryman River Cruise was a particular highlight – there were parts of our Karumba experience that were disappointing. We had had high hopes for the Karumba to Karumba Point walkway, but didn’t find much there, and our searches for Star Finch and Zitting Cisticola at various sites were also fruitless. Probably our expectations were too high; one does tend to have a better time birding if one chills out a bit and lets “the universe come to you” (in the form of lovely birds, ha!). Such was the case for the Airstrip Beach walk, which was more enjoyable because of it.

eBird

Main hotspots: Karumba (253 species), Karumba Developmental Rd at Karumba Point Rd (111 species), Karumba to Karumba Point Walkway and Cycle Path (155 species), Karumba Ferryman Cruise (138 species) Karumba Point–airstrip beach and mangroves (177 species)

Checklists for our visits: Ferryman Cruise (15 species), Town Walk (20 species), Airstrip Beach (23 species)

Pluses and minuses:
+ Ferryman River Cruise is great for mangrove bird species
+ Lots of different and varied locations around the town to check out
– Karumba to Karumba Point walkway proved disappointing (and muddy)
– Roadside birding can be frustrating due to fences and patchy birding

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