Carnarvon Gorge, Aug 2021

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

Carnarvon Gorge is a site within Carnarvon National Park in Central Highlands region of Queensland, about 8.5 hours north-west of Brisbane that features deep canyons, sandstone cliffs, Aboriginal rock art, and plenty of nature and wildlife. Both of us had visited before and so were familiar with the stunning landscapes from a bushwalking perspective, but were unsure what the birding would be like.

We stayed two nights in a basic “glamping” tent at Takarakka Bush Resort which is one of the many options close by, and this gave us good access to attack the various nearby trails plus the main gorge walk itself.

Mickey Creek Gorge

Our first little jaunt was a late afternoon stroll nearby at Mickey Creek Gorge, which is about 3km return and features a side helping of rock-hopping for those inclined.

The trail here follows the creek line and is quite pleasant, and about half way along its length was where we found the most birds, with a few honeyeaters – Lewin’s, White-Eared and White-Naped – featuring along with five Grey Fantails counted, and a few birds heard like Kookaburras and the distinctive descending call of White-Throated Gerygone. However, close photographic encounters were best by far with some Buff-Rumped Thornbills.

Deeper into the walk the terrain becomes rockier and the stony walls start closing in around you. There is a side track to the most dramatic gorge, which is really narrow and kind of dramatically eerie, with plenty of slippery rocks and dimness to contend with… whilst also being very atmospheric.

There were pretty much no birds in the narrowest parts of the gorge, as it’s very rocky and there isn’t much plant life. You can hear a few bird calls far above though.

We had a good enough time birding at Mickey Creek Gorge that we returned another morning to compare to a different time of day, but actually found much less bird action; in fact it was so quiet that we turned back after maybe 600 metres or so. Such is life with birding, I suppose – one location can seem bird-rich one day and empty the next. It might have been a function of when some of the more sociable birds (that tend to forage or travel together) come to the creek to drink, so you just have to get lucky (or be really patient) for that.

Boolimba Bluff

One of the few (only?) places in Carnarvon Gorge where you can get panoramic views from the top of a cliff is Boolimba Bluff, which is about 6.5km return from the main visitor area. It can be a little challenging because it’s steep and has steel ladders and many stone steps, but the lookout is well worth the effort.

We powered up there very late in the afternoon and I can’t remember what birds we saw, because we weren’t really birding… I think we heard some Scarlet Honeyeaters and Noisy Friarbirds, and probably Pied Currawongs. And from the top we could see the occasional white shape of a Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo far below.

Carnarvon Gorge Trail

Our main day at Carnarvon was going to be dedicated to birding and deliberately not trying to walk too far. The thing with the main trail is that it is quite long – to get to Cathedral Cave or Big Bend at the northern end is getting towards 20km return, and that is not counting the side trips you would not want to miss out on on the way. If you’re going to do some birding and bushwalk all that in a day, that’s quite a challenge. Instead we opted to go no further than the Art Gallery / Ward’s Canyon area (about 5km from the Visitor Area), and take our time.

In the expansive Visitor Area, which features picnic tables and a very good Information Hut, we were pleasantly surprised to find a group of five White-Winged Choughs, jauntily chasing each other around and even hopping up onto one of the picnic tables. Having struggled to get good photos of these birds at Girraween and elsewhere, I was keen to get better pictures and I think I succeeded.

Onto the main trail, which does the first of its river crossings as soon as you leave the Visitor Area. These water crossings start off easy – there are always well-placed flat rocks to hop across on – but do get a little more dicey as you travel deeper into the gorge. I think we crossed maybe 6 on our day’s walk (and the same 6 to get back!)

The squawks of Rainbow Lorikeets were readily apparent as were the calls of Blue-Faced Honeyeaters. Varied Sittella were also seen early on though too far away to get any sort of decent shots. Lower down in the canopy we were able to see more thornbills, though closer inspection of the photos later led us to believe these were Striated Thornbills rather than the Buff-Rumped we’d seen the day before.

The main gorge path really is rather nice, with many moods – grassy trailsides, dry eucalypt areas, water crossings, stands of Carnarvon Fan Palm trees, sections of rocky terrain and so forth. We were steadily racking up the species count, though hadn’t had any truly special bird encounters, when we made the short side trip to check out Moss Garden.

There were quite a few Sulphur-Crested Cockatoos and one came close and landed near the top of a casuarina tree, working its way up the trunk and eventually causing the tip of the tree to bend right over. Classic.

There were quite a number of White-Browed Scrubwren all along the trail – we counted 14 in all, the most numerous bird aside from the Rainbow Lorikeets. A less common bird we sighted was a Fan-Tailed Cuckoo, though we knew they were there due to their distinctive “referee’s whistle” call. When we did see it, it obediently stayed very still for us to photograph.

The Amphitheater is another turn off to the left, a little longer to get to and requiring a clamber up metal ladders – from there you walk through a little tunnel and end up in a rock-surrounded wonderland; it is definitely one of the highlights of Carnarvon National Park.

The birding kicked up a notch after that, with a number of good sightings around the water. White-Naped Honeyeaters and more Striated Thornbills were taking a dip in a patch of creek just near the Ward’s Canyon turnoff.

Then further along there were a lot of she-oak trees bent right over, presumably by wind or weather of some kind. Here we found Red-Browed Finch and more White-Naped Honeyeaters plus a host of other birds (Spotted Pardalote, White-Browed Scrubwren, White-Eared Honeyeater) using the nearly horizontal trees to get to the water, or just doing their thing in the area. It was one of those lovely moments when there’s just a bunch of nice birds around and you don’t quite know where to point your camera.

We popped into the Aboriginal rock art site called the Art Gallery, seeing a Willie Wagtail on the way. Soon after we spotted a Shining Bronze-Cuckoo which was a little more active than the Fan-Tailed Cuckoo from earlier (which had sat very still).

We visited Ward’s Canyon on the way back, with its rusty-coloured waters and a little population (about a dozen) of the large and rare King Fern, the nearest similar instances of that fern apparently being on Fraser Island. By now it was 3pm, we had lingered and side-tripped all morning, really taking our time to enjoy the birds and the scenery.

We walked faster on the way back and so saw less birds, but we were feeling pretty satisfied with the day. In any reasonably good forested area you are likely to see a bunch of birds if you spend the entire day there, but Carnarvon Gorge feels a little more special due to the incredibly beautiful surroundings.

We saw a group of Apostlebirds back at the campground, like, right where the toilet block and camp kitchens were, which was amusing.

Summary

Carnarvon Gorge delivered on its landscapes and bushwalking scenery, as we knew it would, but we were pleasantly surprised to find the birding was high quality as well, with a satisfying diversity of forest birds. I suppose you could point out the lack of raptors and the scant number of water birds, but that seems churlish; birding was pretty good right along the gorge trail – less so on some of the side-trails due to the prominence of rock and less vegetation. Being a highly-trafficked tourist site, there are good facilities like interpretative information panels, bench seats, well-maintained paths, and even proper toilet facilities in the middle of the gorge trail (at the Moss Garden turn-off).

An icing on the cake for our Carnarvon adventure was a roadside sighting of a group of about 16 Squatter Pigeons on our way out, a bird which we’d been on the lookout for on several trips out west from Brisbane but somehow hadn’t managed to see yet.

eBird
Carnarvon Gorge is strangely represented in eBird, with two overall hotspots (Carnarvon Gorge and Carnarvon National Park), but no individual hotspots for say, Mickey Creek Gorge or Rock Hole or the Nature Trail. By contrast the north-eastern edge of the park has a bunch (15!) of lesser-used hotspots in the Consuelo Creek area. Weird.
Hotspots: Carnarvon National Park–Carnarvon Gorge (164 species)
Nearby: Nuga Nuga National Park (160 species)
Checklists for our visit: Mickey Creek Gorge (13 species), Carnarvon Gorge (41 species)

Pluses and minuses:
+ Amazing gorge and forest scenery
+ Better than expected bird encounters
+ Impressive array of accommodation options close by
– Some small sections almost bereft of birds, e.g. narrow rocky canyons
– Can get quite busy with bushwalking groups

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