Saturday, 21 June 2014

Mt. Gunderbooka, Where Eagles soar

From Cocoparra NP we drove north to Lake Cargelligo to access Round Hill Nature Reserve, a renowned birding location (for more information see Tim Dolby’s trip report to Round Hill)

The weather turned cold and overcast with some showers, not great birding weather added to the usual lower bird activity over the winter season. After spending some time tracking down the right NSWPS office to phone to let them know we would be in the Reserve, (visitors must now contact the Griffith NSWPS office (phone 02 6966 8100) and not the Cobar office), we headed out there with high expectations. Alas the birds were extremely quiet and after several hours searching both the mallee and cypress pine sections, with hardly any birds seen or heard, we headed back to Lake Cargelligo rather dejected.

After a couple of days waiting for the weather to improve we moved on with an abortive attempt to visit Willandra National Park west of Hillston. Conditions looked dry further west and after checking that the Hillston – Ivanhoe Road was open by phoning the Shire Ranger we figured Willandra would be open. 

However after travelling over 50km out to the turn off to Willandra NP on some slippery wet clay surfaces and heading about a kilometer up the side road to Willandra on even worse conditions, we decided to back up to the main road. It was far too risky to attempt to turn around so we had to call off our visit to Willandra. Ten to twenty millimetres of rain, and in some places even less, can bring travel to a halt on many unsealed outback roads.
A small section of gravel at the turn off to Willandra NP. The country is very flat out here.
About 1km from above intersection the road to Willandra was not looking promising.
This is where we called our visit off and backed, with the van on the back, to the intersection
with some difficulty on the very slippery surface.

It took some time with a shovel to remove the worst of the sticky red clay from six wheel arches and mudflaps. Leaving it on to dry out and fall off at speed on the highway would endanger
fellow motorists.
So the next option on our now somewhat pear shaped itinerary, was to head north from Hillston up the Kidman Way through Cobar to Gundabooka NP, which is about 50km south of Bourke. However after a pleasant night camped on the Lachlan River not far north of Hillston we decided when we reached Mount Hope to head east to Round Hill Reserve again and camp in the Reserve for a night and try our luck with the birds there one more time.
Searching for birds in mallee scrub on track down the west side of the "old wheat paddock" at Round Hill Reserve.
We did manage to improve slightly on our previous visit and found a Gilbert’s Whistler and a pair of Southern Scrub-robins, however overall the birds were still very scarce.
A male Gilbert's Whistler - after hearing this bird calling at a distance I confess to using call play back to bring it in - however it would not come in close - this was the best of a
number of long shots.
We found a pair of Southern Scrub-robins foraging on the ground among dense scrub.
They moved quickly and getting a photo was difficult.
If I return to Round Hill Reserve it will definitely need to be in Spring.

From Round Hill Reserve we returned to the Kidman Way and headed north to Gundabooka NP where we camped for three nights.

Gundabooka NP covers the Gunderbooka Range, (spelt differently on our maps?), which lies east of the Darling River on the vast Cobar peneplain (for explanation of the geological term peneplain see

Much of the plain around the Gunderbooka Range is dominated by large tracts of waterless mulga country (Acacia aneura) which also includes tree species such as Bimble Box (E populnea), Red Box (E intertextra), White Cypress Pine (Callitris glaucophylla), Western Bloodwood (Corymbia tumescens), Ironwood (Acacia excels) and Belah (Casuarina cristata, Beefwood (Grevillia striata) and Wilga (Geijera parviflora) just to name a few. Add low rainfall and very hot summers to this landscape and you have very challenging survival conditions for both plants and animals and yet 137 bird species have been recorded in the park. We recorded 27 species over our two and half days in the park.

At Dry Tank campground, the only camping area in the park, the mulga woodland birds proved to be scarce and when we did find some they were extremely wary and very hard to approach for photos.
We found two male and one female Hooded Robin in mature mulga woodland near the end of the Little Mountain walk from the Dry Tank camp ground.
They we very hard to get close to and this was my only long distance shot of a male.
A female Crested Bellbird found in the same woodland as the Hooded Robins. The male was nearby and they moved together as they foraged for food on the ground.
Once again, very hard to get close to.
The male Crested Bellbird taken in 2012 at Arkaroola in the Northern Flinders Ranges SA.
A White-browed Treecreeper, a female - note the red mark above the eye.
A male White-browed Treecreeper peering at me from the side of a mulga trunk.
A small party of Splendid Fairy-wrens were encountered in the mulga including this male.

Rufous Whistlers are a common arid country whistler. This male was in company with another male plus a female and a dependent juvenile still begging for food from its mother.
If you can find some Rufous Whistlers there will often be other species nearby.
The juvenile Rufous Whistler found with the above bird - note pale bill.
A Spiny-cheeked Honeyeater feeding on mistletoe flowers in mulga at Dry Tank camp.
A Singing Honeyeater was feeding on the same flowers along with the Spiny-cheeked

The highlight of our time at Gundabooka was our visit to Bennetts Gorge at the west end of the range and our walk up towards Mt Gunderbooka.

Valley of the Eagle at western end of the Gunderbooka Range.
Driving in to the start of the walk we saw a few Australian Ringnecks and Mulga Parrots and at the picnic car park area, a Hooded Robin in the mulga woodland and Chestnut-rumped Thornbills. On the flat section of the walk at the start three Pied Butcherbirds briefly caught our attention as they chased one another and some Yellow-throated miners could be heard at a distance in some eucalypts. 

Once we started the climb proper we did not encounter any small birds on the way up.

The brochure we had on the park promoted the area as The Valley of the Eagle (Gnana Maliyan), the home of Wedge-tailed Eagles and the attractive trail markers displayed a Wedge-tailed Eagle.
Attractive Wedge-tailed Eagle trail marker on quartzite rock - the steep rocky trail is moderately easy to follow going up but a little harder going down.
Note the fern growing out of a crack in the rock.
We saw no Eagles as we walked in to the foot of the range and during the first part of the climb.
View from part way up Mt Gunderbooka of the vast Cobar peneplain which surrounds the range and stretches as far as the eye can see.

I thought our chances of seeing Eagles was low although the conditions were perfect for them as a moderate breeze from the north caused a strong up lift as it passed over the range and funneled up the gorge. As we approached the head of the Valley of the Eagle to my surprise a Wedge-tailed Eagle flew silently close by us. It’s sudden and very close presence really got the adrenaline going. 
Approaching the head of The Valley of the Eagle (Bennetts Gorge) where we had
our first encounter with a Wedge-tailed Eagle.

The bird soon disappeared and as we neared the head of the gorge we decided to sit quietly on a rock above the gorge, a great vantage point, and see what eventuated. After about ten minutes an Eagle appeared over the range and then to our great delight a second eagle joined it and then a third. For the next fifteen minutes or so we were treated to aerial displays by the three birds, which were clearly interacting, and after later assessment of my photos and their behavior we concluded the group was probably a family, two adult parents and one juvenile bird. 

The aerial displays were punctuated by three visits to us when they came very close and at times hovered stationary just 15 metres directly above us to check us out. The juvenile was particularly inquisitive. 
Two birds above the range engaged in aerial pursuit.
Three birds together and one adult (possibly the female) above the juvenile and grasping the juvenile's foot. The juvenile is upside down with head down and one leg pointing to the
left side of the image.

Here are a few of the fifty photos I took of the birds.
The light colour across the top of wing shows this is a juvenile bird.
The juvenile again - it was very inquisitive.
Hovering stationary directly above us in the perfect wind conditions.

Sitting high on the rugged Gunderbooka Range, an ancient environment, with three magnificent Wedge-tailed Eagles, top order predators, displaying in perfect conditions and coming close by to check us out, was one of those once in a lifetime very special experiences – a real privilege.

From Gundabooka NP we headed to Bourke to regroup and prepare for a visit to the remote Culgoa NP north east of Bourke on the NSW/Qld border.

1 comment:

  1. Madeline Mira Loma California24 June 2014 at 05:17

    Wonderful photos of the eagles! When I visit Australia I look for postcards of Wedge-tailed Eagles and never see any of these incredible birds in flight! If you had the time and inclination to make some postcards I'm sure you could have Lindsay Fisher display and sell them at Kingfisher Park! I'll be there in August and I'd buy 10! Thanks!!