Oakey, 2021-2022

Summary: Awesome country birding along an exposed dirt road, with good nearby parks too

Dates of visits: May 22 and Aug 5, 2021, and Aug 23 2022

A visit to Oakey, just west of Toowoomba on the Darling Downs in Queensland, is something of a rite of passage – or perhaps a pilgrimage – for those living in Brisbane. Here you can find some wonderful bird species including a few that are hard to find elsewhere, or that are at the easternmost edge of their range.

It’s nearly two hours to get to Oakey, and I’ve stayed overnight in Toowoomba (25 minutes away, and only 20 minutes if you stay at the excellent Altitude Motel on the outskirts of town) on a few occasions to shorten the journey. This post mainly covers Devon Park Boundary Rd and Arthur Shooter Memorial Park, arguably the two best sites in the area.

Devon Park Boundary Road

The first port of call for a fulfilling trip to Oakey is surely Devon Park Boundary Road, found by passing through Oakey and continuing north a short distance along Oakey-Cooyar Rd. If you’ve only heard about this site, at first you might wonder what all the fuss is about when you arrive. It is simply a gravel country road lined with grasses, prickly pears and the occasional tree or two…

Given the flatness of the land, the road is certainly exposed to the elements. It can get quite cold in winter, and tends to be unpleasant if the weather is windy. Being cognisant of the direction of sunlight is a must for photography and identification, lest you end up with a permanent squint. That said, when it all comes together, this location is hard to beat!

Some patience tends to be required to find the less obvious birds here. As it is 3km from the start (eastern end) of Devon Park Boundary Road to “second bend” (see map), you’ll also need to decide whether to do some “car birding”, where you drive along very slowly with camera or bins at the ready (good if you have limited time), or mix it up by covering the stretches by bouts of parking and walking (my preferred method). The roads here are petty quiet but do pull right over to let occasional other vehicles pass safely.

The incredibly vibrant White-Winged Fairywren is one of the marquee species you’ll want to find here and there is a (mostly) reliable population, due to this being a somewhat territorial bird. You may need to exercise quite some patience to see them well (and it may be that their boldness depends on where they are in their breeding cycle), but what you won’t need to do is adjust the saturation level on your photos of the male – his blue is ridiculously gorgeous!

The fairywrens are best observed when they pop up onto a fence line or fence post, but they rarely stay there for long. Around Oakey is actually the easternmost limit of the Australian range of this species, which can be found in arid and semi-arid shrubland all the way to the west coast of Western Australia. The best place to look on Devon Park Boundary Rd is anywhere near “first bend”, though they might also be found nearer “second bend”. Listen closely for those characteristic high-pitched insect-like fairywren trills. We counted an astonishing 19 of these fairywrens on our Aug 22, 2022 visit, which is close to eBird’s High Count for this site.

Zebra Finch are another species that are relatively easy to find here compared to regions to the east, and also most likely to be found along the first stretch of Devon Park Boundary Rd. As with the fairywrens, it is ideal to see and photograph these birds on a fence line with the sharp morning sun lighting them up (rather than being back-lit) – so on the south side of Devon Park Boundary Rd. If only the birds would cooperate!

Keep a good look out on the power poles, as raptors perch here including Brown Falcon and – very commonly – Nankeen Kestrel. I have also seen Black-Shouldered Kites and Whistling Kites too.

At the first bend (see map) of Devon Park Boundary Rd, a rough track continues west, which I have found myself walking along when pursuing the fairywrens and other birds. This goes for quite a long way and is not drivable; it can also get boggy when wet. I have found that you don’t really need to traverse this section to find the birds mentioned in this post.

Given all the fringing grasses, Golden-Headed Cisticolas are a common sight, too, and is another bird you’ll ideally want to find on a fence or exposed branch of some kind.

On my very first visit to this area on Aug 5 2021, there were dozens of Galahs (and a couple of Little Corellas) feeding on the dregs of a field full of wilted brown sunflowers. Much depends on what is being grown in the paddocks as to how many such birds might show up (sorghum crops, for example, which can attract large numbers of parrot species).

On the Aug 23 2022 visit there was a little group of Brown Quail when the paddock to the south was lying fallow; they weren’t far from the fence line and the safety of the bushes and grasses provided.

I also saw a White-Faced Heron in this paddock on Aug 23 2022, looking a little out of place. Really, it is difficult to generalise here as there is quite a range of bird species you might see: Cockatiels are often around, you may get Red-Rumped Parrots (or even Red-Winged Parrots), Common Myna (invasive, potentially in numbers), and it is close to the easternmost edge of the range for Yellow-Throated Miners. Horsfield’s Bushlark and Brown Songlark are sometimes seen, as well as Spotted Harrier and Black Falcon.

I had been to Devon Park Boundary Road three times before finding my first Ground Cuckooshrike there. Unless you are fortunate enough to have one (or more!) land on a fence line, a thorough scanning of the paddocks is required, because true to their name, they seem to like being on the ground a lot. They are worth finding though, as they are very cool-looking birds. Seeing the Ground Cuckooshrike was extra-special for me as it completed the full set of Australian Cuckooshrikes I have seen – and it rocketed to the top of that list for its suave good looks!

If you follow Devon Park Boundary Rd further, it turns into Devon Park Rd and the birding continues to be pretty good; I had a lovely encounter with some Apostlebirds along this stretch. It can get frustrating that it is all private land on both sides of the road; if you see a bird further off you can’t really chase it down. Such is life.

Nankeen Kestrels continue to be the most abundant raptor as you travel further west along Devon Park Road. It is fun to try and capture them while they’re hovering over a field (and equally entertaining to see them drop quickly into the grass to snatch prey). I was also lucky enough on the Aug 23 2022 visit to see one returning to a high tree branch with a mouse it had caught.

Cockatiels like to forage on the ground and I saw some right in the middle of the road (I think it was the intersection of Devon Park Rd and Jondaryan Sabine Rd). If you are super keen to see these birds then a good scan of grassy fields is needed (and listen for their calls) if you can’t find any on powerlines or other exposed perches. Groups of Cockatiels seem to be able to disappear almost magically when on grassy ground.

If you keep to the left after following Devon Park Rd, you’ll wind up on Jondaryan Sabine Rd, which is much nearer to the town of Jondaryan than to Oakey. Here there is some dry, dense bushland on either side of the road and it’s a good spot for such birds as Spiny-cheeked Honeyeater and Yellow Thornbill. It is fairly tough birding along here though due to the density of branches, and wire fences prevent proper exploration by foot.

Arthur Shooter Memorial Park

On Stanley St within the township of Oakey itself (just north of the train line), Arthur Shooter Memorial Park offers a different type of birding, of the more “gum trees along the creek” variety. I have only visited here once (Aug 23 2022), but had a good time.

A Tawny Frogmouth was a nice surprise (pointed out by another birder) right near the car park.

There is a large dead tree protruding from the creek which must be a near-perfect nesting site for parrots, and when I was watching, it was frequented by a male-female pair of Red-Rumped Parrots looking gorgeous in the sunlight. These parrots are found all the way east to Brisbane (though are not at all common there); spend enough time in and around Oakey and you are likely to find some.

It is a pleasant enough park with nothing particularly standing out from a scenery point of view. The main paths are paved and flat so are easy to get around on.

The real bird action began for me when exploring the gums fringing Oakey Creek where it widens a little. Maybe it was just the time of year (late August), but the trees were just teeming with lorikeets and other parrot species – including six Galahs, a dozen Scaly-Breasted Lorikeets, ten Rainbow Lorikeets and a couple of Sulphur-Crested Cockatoos and Little Corellas; a lot of these birds mentioned were all in one huge gum tree!

The Scaly-Breasted Lorikeets were especially fun to watch and like the other birds seemed keen to scope out the different nesting holes in these old eucaylpts.

Other birds along or near the river included a pair of Pale-Headed Rosella, a Noisy Miner parent attending to its chick which seemed to have fallen on the ground, and a White-Necked Heron which spent a long time standing on a post in the middle of the creek – long enough for a video as well as a few photos.

Summary

I have (at least cursorily) explored many of the country roads around the Oakey area and I’m not sure what makes Devon Park Boundary Rd so special for birding; it might be access to water via Doctor Creek and various farm dams, along with a good mixture of habitats and vegetation. In the four times I have been there it hasn’t let me down. It is pretty special to be able to see Zebra Finch, White-Winged Fairywren, Ground Cuckooshrike and a host of raptors and parrots in one outing. The only negatives are that it is quite exposed to the elements: it can get very cold (and foggy) on a winter’s morning, and windy too (I haven’t been in the height of summer but imagine it could get very hot). Having Arthur Shooter Memorial Park nearby for an extra birding option is icing on the cake.

eBird:
Hotspots: Devon Park Boundary Rd (129 species), Arthur Shooter Memorial Park (48 species)
Sample checklists for our visits: Devon Park Boundary Road Aug 23 2022 (26 species), Arthur Shooter Memorial Park Aug 23 2022 (23 species)
Bird Spots videos: Zebra Finches, White-Necked Heron

Pluses and minuses:
+ Incredible country birding with great chance of Zebra Finch, White-Winged Fairywren and Ground Cuckooshrike
+ You can bird for a short or long amount of time – there is plenty of road and park to explore
+ Flat and easy to navigate and get around
– Devon Park Boundary Rd is quite exposed to vagaries of light, wind and cold
– Private land – you have to keep to the road and verges only
– I wish it was closer to Brisbane!

AUTHOR: Andy Gee
BIRDERS: Andy Gee, K-A, Luke S

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