Atkinson Dam, 2020-2021

Summary: Superb location for water birds, raptors, grassbirds and many others.

Dates of visit: Nov 26, 2020, and Jan 3, May 27, June 27 2021

I have a real soft spot for Atkinson Dam, a reservoir in flat rural country about an hour’s drive west of Brisbane and not too near anything much at all. You’re probably looking at the context photos below thinking “wow, that place doesn’t look like much”… but you’d be very, very wrong.

The dam seems to be variously called Atkinson Dam or Atkinsons Dam depending on where you look (the latter might be the locality name, I think). It was completed in 1970 and forms part of the Lower Lockyer irrigation system.

Getting there is pretty easy, though time-consuming on the long, flat rural roads. (You don’t need to worry about gravel roads, as the way there is all sealed). Drive down Atkinsons Dam Rd and just past the sedate little holiday park there is an obvious signed gate; inside is a loop road, and facilities here include a toilet block and picnic seats. It’s all rather civilised.

Speaking of the front gate, if you arrive too early (ie. before 6am in summer) you’ll actually find it locked, and be forced to park on the road and walk the short stroll in. On my Jan 3 visit, this was fortuitous as I saw a pair of Striped Honeyeaters on the trees on the edge of the road.

I’ve found loads of great birds in the trees fringing the picnic area, including a stunning encounter with a male-female pair of Pacific Koel on my Nov 26 visit. They were just perching in one of the trees on the eastern side of the car park loop, and stayed there for quite a while, before the male eventually took off. The female foraged a bit longer and then joined it. It was the first time I’d seen these birds, so it was spectacular for me to see them so close and unconcerned at my presence snapping their pictures. They really are very, very cool birds (and cuckoos, to boot!)

It would take too long to list all the bird species I’ve seen in the car park loop area (see the eBird checklist links below if interested), but suffice to say it punches way above its weight for a place that doesn’t have that many trees. A Whistling Kite has had a nest here for some time, and Noisy Miners compete for the flowering trees with Rainbow and Scaly-Breasted Lorikeets, Blue-Faced Honeyeaters, Figbirds and Little Friarbirds. (In fact, it’s seems like a pretty reliable place to get Little Friarbirds).

Atkinson Dam has been in a very low water level state since I started going there, well below 5%. You can see the evidence of this in the boat ramp dropping down into grass, with the water nowhere near where the ramp extends to. The extensive grasses and reeds exposed by the retreating water do have some “tracks” to facilitate exploration, which are just slightly-trampled paths rather than anything formal. Note that the ground underfoot can get boggy anywhere near the water and careful wandering is the order of the day.

If venturing through the lakeside grasses, there are generally tons of Golden-Headed Cisticola to see. They seem to get more numerous every time I go there, which I find to be no bad thing: they are very characterful birds and often relatively easy to photograph at close quarters. Getting them straddling two stems is a classic “ninja”-style pose which I’ve managed a couple of times; the other good shot to get is when they are mid-call with their little beaks wide open. With so many cisticolas you can almost take your pick of preferred background and bird pose!

Below is a video I made showing a Golden-Headed Cisticola calling, actually recorded in December 2021 (replacing a previous video I had made as this one is better!). You can also hear many frogs in the background.

If you can see (or hear) past the cisticolas, there are other birds here in the dry grasses, most numerously Red-Backed Fairywrens and, closer to the water, Reed Warblers.

In my first few visits some Plum-Headed Finch and Chestnut-Breasted Mannikin were about, and a couple of times I’ve flushed quail too, though I’ve not achieved a photo of one yet – there’s a lot of grass for them to disappear like magic into, which they seem to do.

Of course, being basically a large lake, there’s plenty of water birds to see, and Atkinson Dam is amazing for these – common species include Pacific Black Ducks, Grey Teals, sometimes huge numbers of Hardheads, Pied Stilts, Black Swans and Eurasian Coots.

At any time, a flock of Glossy Ibis might fly over, an Egret might elegantly land, a Pelican or two might drift by, or Royal Spoonbills might be swishing their huge bills side to side through the water. Blessedly, the morning sun is generally always behind you when you’re looking towards the water, which helps immensely with photography.

The dam is also very good for rarer water birds, like Blue-Billed Duck, Freckled Duck, Pink-Eared Duck, Great Crested and Hoary-Headed Grebe, Red-Necked Avocets and Sandpipers, all of which I saw on various visits checklisted below.

You’ll want a spotting scope or a very long lens to really make the most of the water bird sightings, especially if you want to count them accurately. Though you can apparently walk right around the dam which might help in that regard.

Raptors are one of the other big highlights of Atkinson Dam. A Black Falcon apparently hangs around the southern side of the dam (in the Boyce Road area), though I haven’t seen this bird yet (I did try…!) Common raptors are Whistling Kite, Brown Falcon, Kestrel, and Australasian Hobby – I’ve seen all these from or near the car park area (except the Brown Falcon, which was more towards the dam wall).

My most extraordinary raptor moment, though, happened on my May 27 visit: I was down near the water, when suddenly a large bird of prey lifted up out of the reeds quite close and took off, issuing me a baleful stare as it made off across the water – it was my first Swamp Harrier sighting (ever!)

It’s also worth mentioning that Banded Lapwing are often found in the fields of the surrounding roads, most frequently Banool Road, though I personally haven’t seen them there in a couple of attempts.

I’ve seen a respectable 10 lifer birds over the four times I’ve gone to Atkinson Dam, and other birders have seen some exotic birds there like Long-Tailed Jaeger, Eastern Yellow Wagtail, and many more just in the last year. Just writing up this blog has made me want to go back there again: even if I only ended up with a series of Golden-Headed Cisticola photos, that would be happy-making.

Hotspot: Atkinsons Dam (227 species)
Nearby: Jensen’s Swamp Environmental Reserve (139 species)
Checklists for these visits 26 Nov 2020 (37 species), 3 Jan 2021 (50 species), 27 May 2021 (42 species), 27 June 2021 (39 species)

Pluses and minuses:
+ Incredible array of water birds, bush birds and raptors
+ Don’t have to walk far to experience great encounters
+ Good place to relax and maybe have a picnic (while watching birds, of course)
– Can be hard to get close to the water or see across
– Can get hot very quickly out of the shade, especially on a summer’s morning
– Can’t walk across the dam wall 😛

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