Oxley Creek Common, revisited

In our Revisited series of posts, we report on previously-covered birding locations, re-evaluating what we said about the location and providing a deeper, more considered opinion based on multiple subsequent visits.

Oxley Creek Common (OCC) is without doubt one of Brisbane’s premier birding locations, just recently exceeding a whopping count of 5000 eBird checklists. I have returned there regularly since my first few visits in mid-2020. Back then I said of OCC: “reliably great bird encounters and wonderful photography opportunities”, and more birding outings there (14 in 2021 alone) have only cemented that view.

The Car Park, the Big Red Shed and the Gate

One of the nice things about Oxley Creek Common is that the birding is terrific right from the get-go. Sure there are common birds around the car park like Crested Pigeon, Masked Lapwing, Brushturkey, Noisy Miner and various magpies, crows and butcherbirds…

…but look a little closer and you may find a Tawny Frogmouth or an Olive-Backed Oriole. The Tawny below was reliably present from at least Dec 2021 to Feb 2022.

I am often keen to get birding in earnest down the main path, but I always end up spending more time near the gate than I expect: here I have often seen Double-Barred Finches (and once a Plum-Headed Finch), Willie Wagtails, Brown Honeyeater, while on the fenceline and in the grassy paddock have nearly always found Tawny Grassbirds, Golden-Headed Cisticolas and Red-Backed Fairywrens. Later in the morning this paddock often teems with swarming Welcome Swallows – sometimes dozens of them – arcing low over the grass in search of insects.

Less common birds near the gate were a juvenile (and fearless) White-Throated Gerygone, and the only White-Winged Triller I have seen at OCC (late Oct 2021).

The Main Drag

Right, onto the main path. Our previous post advised arriving early, and I did precisely this on a visit in Dec 2020, starting my bird checklisting at 5:15am. For those who don’t live in South-East Queensland, the sun is already up nearly half an hour at this point! Yep, we don’t have the luxury of a daylight savings sleep-in… but I digress… the point is that it was early enough that this Pheasant Coucal was up and alert on a fencepost calling loudly. I was so close to the bird that I had to back right up to get photos of it!

Honeyeaters are most prominent through the cooler winter months and even though there are always Noisy Miners around, the smaller Brown and Scarlet Honeyeaters are also abundant then.

Blue-Faced Honeyeaters are often sighted, sometimes in larger groups of half a dozen birds, while Lewin’s Honeyeaters are reliably present year-round and can always be counted on to rush in curiously and depart just as quickly, or chase each other madly through the trees. Getting good photos of both of these species has been a challenge for me at OCC; so too the Striped Honeyeaters I’ve seen there just twice.

The cooler months are also a good time for Grey Fantail, whose altitudinal and north-south migrations bring them here more numerously then. Good photographic subjects, they are, if they stand still long enough. Rufous Fantails are also frequently seen at OCC, though in their case, slightly less in winter.

Oxley Creek Common is simply the place to photograph Brown Quail; with patience you can find up to two dozen along the main path, and they have become quite accustomed to people. Even when a vehicle (of one of the local bushcare groups) drives through and they scatter into the undergrowth, they are soon back out in the open.

I have also found the main path up to Willie Wagtail Way (the side spur 1.3km in) to be reliable for Spangled Drongo, Spotted and Bar-Shouldered Dove, Grey Shrikethrush, Sacred Kingfisher (mainly over the extended summer months) and Kookaburras. Most times there’ll also be some sort of contingent of Figbirds as well.

Less frequently I’ve found Golden Whistler, Leaden Flycatcher, Dollarbird, Striated Pardalote and Mistletoebird, and most times I’ve at least heard the signature crack of a Whipbird.

In one memorable visit in Mar 2021, a Buff-Banded Rail sauntered through the grasses right alongside the path, stretching its wings and seeming unconcerned with the nearby human presence.

And this is part of the magic of Oxley Creek Common: not only are there close encounters with a wide range of great bird species, but more often than not you’ll be able to take a neat photo to remember it too.

Let’s Talk About Fairywrens and Finches

Three types of fairywren frequent OCC, being Red-Backed, Superb and Variegated, with the latter being the least commonly seen of the three. In the previous post we called OCC “fairywren heaven”, and that has proved to be a very apt description. The fairywrens are so prominent and photogenic that you almost have to force yourself to focus on the other birds lest your morning turn into a fairywren-fest. Almost.

If one ever does tire of taking bird-on-a-branch or bird-on-a-post or bird-on-a-fence photos of fairywrens, you can always look for birds in so-called “eclipse” plumage – coming into or out of breeding colours. These can make for unusual-looking subjects.

Or look for birds in the act of catching and devouring insects… or in the case of this Red-Backed Fairywren male, carrying a bright petal as part of a courtship display.

My most memorable fairywren moment at OCC occurred on a cloudy day in Oct 2021. I had actually had a pretty mediocre-to-average time so far, having taken nearly two hours to get to Willie Wagtail Way (quite a standard amount of time; slow and patient birding is the way I roll). From out of nowhere a male and female Superb Fairywren alighted on a branch just beyond the fenceline, then a third bird flew in between them and they all started preening and jostling without a care in the world. It was an incredible moment.

It wasn’t the first time I’ve seen these very sociable birds cuddling and preening, and I hope it won’t be the last.

Speaking of sociable birds, the Double-Barred Finches, Red-Browed Finches and Chestnut-Breasted Mannikin usually travel in groups, and the latter species I saw in huge numbers in Jun 2021 – in fact it was a site high count at 180 birds. Quite something!

You are almost guaranteed to see Red-Browed Finch at some point around OCC, and that’s no bad thing. Like all the seed-eaters (finches and quail especially), these birds often need to drink as seeds provide very little moisture, so look out for them crossing the path on the way down to visit the creek (by wing or, in the case of quail, by foot!)

Double-Barred Finch are probably best seen near the gate or along Willie Wagtail Way; I have spent much time and considerable frustration trying to get the best shots I could of these flitty little birds. Happily, some days are lucky in that regard.

Willie Wagtail Way

Shortly after the “second dip” (a concrete causeway, well worth lingering around for birds, lizards and snakes), the path opens out and the Willie Wagtail Way side-track heads out to the lagoons and Pelican Island. It might not be an exaggeration to say that this is the best 100 metres of birding in suburban Brisbane.

Along this side-trail is the best spot for capturing close-up shots of those sometimes quite elusive grassbirds, the Tawny Grassbird and the Golden-Headed Cisticola. The Cisticola is typically more confiding and is sometimes seen on the wire fence or its fenceposts, while the moment to savour the Tawny Grassbirds is when they’re playing king-of-the-hill on the top of an exposed bush. Both species can indulge in strident calling and a good deal of looking around from these higher perches.

A good number of the trees lining Willie Wagtail Way are Coral Trees, with distinctive red flowers that tend to bloom in late winter/spring (the photos below are from October). These trees are actually classed as weeds in Queensland and New South Wales, but they are pretty good bird attractors, particularly for Brown Honeyeaters and Rainbow Lorikeets!

Speaking of Silvereyes… now there’s a small flitty bird that you can while away a bunch of time with. They tend to travel in excitable groups but don’t stay around long, and again Willie Wagtail Way (and near it) is the best spot at OCC for them.

Rainbow Bee-Eaters are also found along the main path, but the junction with Willie Wagtail Way often provides the best photographic opportunities for this spectacular bird which is present at OCC all year round. Sadly it may be in decline on the East Coast with research indicating numbers falling by an alarming 50% since 2001.

The reliability and number of raptors at OCC is astounding. Remember this is basically a suburban location! They can be seen typically on the more bare trees or on the electrical towers when perching, and Willie Wagtail Way is the best place to look for them as it passes through open fields (though I did notably see an Australian Hobby from the main path once). Even Black Falcons have been seen here in the past. Crazy stuff!

I have seen Peregrine Falcon twice at OCC, both times at Willie Wagtail Way, and both times were very special. It is, after all, the world’s fastest animal!

The full list of raptors I’ve seen at OCC are Peregrine Falcon, Black Kite, Black-Shouldered Kite, Whistling Kite, White-Bellied Sea-Eagle and Brown Goshawk. Sometimes, as is the case with the life of a bird of prey, they are being hassled by other birds, most notably crows in the case of OCC.

Water birds are also represented at OCC as Willie Wagtail Way features two large bodies of water and a smaller pond. I wouldn’t say it’s the best place to see these types of birds, but it definitely has its moments – on the same day I saw the three preening Superb Fairywrens, my birding buddy and I spotted six Latham’s Snipe hiding in the Hyacinth weed.

Generally speaking by mid-morning you’ll have Willie Wagtail Way mostly to yourself (at least on a week day) and sometimes unexpected events do occur, like raptor flyovers, sudden influxes of finches, a perhaps-too-close approach by a brazen magpie or butcherbird, or… this feral deer which jumped the fence and ran around manically. Following Facebook advice, I reported it to Brisbane City Council.

To finish off this look at Willie Wagtail Way here’s the titular bird itself, which is actually found all along OCC.

The Path To The Secret Forest

I mentioned in the last post that the path after the Willie Wagtail Way turn-off led to the Secret Forest, a line of large Hoop Pine trees and grassy fields. I have since revisited this area to find Lewin’s Honeyeaters, Pied Currawong, Pied Butcherbirds and Magpies as well as the sound of Whipbirds and some grassbirds – all well and good, but nowhere near the superlative birding as in the other parts of OCC.

And Then We Went By Boat

My regular birding pal and I put our mostly-trustworthy canoe into the water at the ramp behind the Big Red Shed early (5:45am) one December morning in 2021 to get a different perspective on OCC, and we were rewarded with some great sightings (and a very sore behind from a very hard canoe seat).

The most treasured of these encounters were with the Striated Herons who patrol the low-tide mudbanks of the creek.

A pair of White-Headed Pigeons was a surprise and a site first for us both, though a lot of the other birds were familiar and expected, but often more difficult to see and photograph from a moving vessel (Pheasant Coucal, for example).

We paddled as far as the creek loop around the Secret Forest area, where we were lucky enough to see a small number of White-Throated Needletails high above.

There were also a lot of Water Dragons present along the creek line. Like, a lot.

Unsurprisingly the best birding from a photography perspective in this context were the water birds, especially Pacific Black and Australian Wood Ducks, and Australasian Darter. A boat, while it has its movement challenges, does give you a unique eye-level viewpoint here. (Unfortunately, you also get an eye-level look at the disappointing amount of litter that fetches up on the creek-side mangroves and tree roots).

We birded for nearly two and a half hours on this canoe trip and counted 42 species in total.

And In Conclusion…

I was not wrong with my glowing (gushing?) review of Oxley Creek Common. It is a place I am drawn to enough to visit at least once a month if not more often, and it is equally impressive in all seasons. On many of my visits I have picked up more than 50 species of birds. Looking back through my photos has been quite the trip down memory lane for me and has underlined just how very special this place is.

Revised pluses and minuses:
+ Superlative birdlife coupled with fantastic photographic opportunities
+ Also kinda interesting by boat
– (Really, it would be churlish to find negatives)

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