Sunday, 20 July 2014

Mutawintji National Park NSW

Following our run down the Darling River (see previous post) from Bourke to Wilcannia, we headed north from Wilcannia up to White Cliffs, an old opal mining town with a population of 200. We stayed the night at the caravan park as there were very few suitable places to bush camp in the area which is very open with few trees.
From White Cliffs we drove west and then south on unsealed roads of variable quality to Mutawintji NP where we camped for three nights at Homestead Creek Camping Ground, the only camping area in the park.
Not far north of White Cliffs we came upon a group of 6 male Bustard both on the road and beside the road. We stopped and edged forward hoping for some close photos however they seemed a little shy and as we moved up they slowly crossed the road and then took flight. Male bustards gather to display in the lead up to breeding. None of the birds in this group were displaying and being the 4th of July it was a little early for the August – November breeding season, however the gathering of males probably related to the mating process.
One of the six stately Bustards slowly crossing the road north of White Cliffs.
..... two more, nearly across the road.
.... safely across the road and shortly before taking flight.
It is always a pleasant surprise to come across these widespread birds, which are now either extinct or uncommon in more settled areas but still common enough in more remote areas.
Mutawintji NP, which is located 130km north east of Broken Hill, is dominated by the red rocks of the Byngnano Range, eroded sediments from a 400 million year old seabed. The creeks and gorges are lined by redgums and contain rock pools. There is evidence of Aboriginal occupation of the area dating back at least 8,000 years and rock art sites with some exceptional rock engravings which are a must see if visiting the park. The petroglyphs are in a restricted access area and can only be seen on an organized tours which are operated on a regular basis. There are a range of excellent walks in the park of various lengths and grades.
Eroded 400 million years old sedimentary rocks on the Byngnano Range.
Redgums in the gorge on Homestead Creek.
The park received some good rain in April 2014, which generated fresh growth and attracted a good number of birds. We recorded 49 species over two full days in the park and a couple of half days. Some emu bushes were in flower attracting Pied and White-fronted Honeyeaters in addition to the usual White-plumed and Spiny-cheeked Honeyeaters. There were also large numbers of Little Friarbirds along Homestead Creek, they visited the camping area late each afternoon when they spent a lot of time chasing one another between foraging in the redgum canopies.
As we reached a high point on the Byngnano Range walk a pair of Wedge-tailed Eagles entertained us with an aerial display in the brisk northerly breeze.
A pair of Wedge-tailed Eagles in formation flight above Byngnano Range.
.... still in formation the pair came close together.
A little further on, a third Wedge-tailed Eagle was chased by an Australian Raven, which must have had a nest nearby, or perhaps the Raven considered this part of the range its territory?
We were entertained by this real life drama as an Australian Raven repeatedly
attacked the Wedge-tailed Eagle.
... closing in.
The Raven added a verbal assault to its attack.
The Australian Ringneck Parrot is a common outback species with four sub species, the Port Lincoln, Twenty-eight, Cloncurry and Mallee. The Mallee Ringneck was the race we saw throughout our trip, a young bird plus an adult were feeding on small green fruits on a spiky bush beside Homestead Creek.
A juvenile Mallee Ringneck feeding on small green fruits.
An adult Mallee Ringneck - shortly after this shot this adult bird moved over and fed
the juvenile some regurgitated fruit.
There were scattered stands of Eremophila species in flower following the rain in April and good numbers of White-plumed, Singing, Spiny-cheeked, White-fronted and Pied Honeyeaters plus Mistletoebirds were feeding on the nectar. They were both very active and very wary so getting some photos proved to be frustrating as I could not get close enough and none of the birds would sit still long enough. Here are a few shots for the record.
Several male/female pairs of Mistletoebirds actively chased one another in between feeding on Eremophila flowers and mistletoe fruits growing on the Eremophila bushes - this is a male.
A male Pied Honeyeater taking a brief spell perched in the open on top of a dead shrub. The males of this arid interior species when courting make a distinctive morse code-like call
from a prominent perch.
A White-fronted Honeyeater - I would have liked a closer shot of this rather weird looking bird.
Both Fan-tailed and Pallid Cuckoos were fairly common across the area where we travelled with the Fantails found mostly in woodlands and along water courses and the Pallid out on open plains. This Fan-tailed came in close to our camp on Homestead creek.                                                                                                                                      
A Fan-tailed Cuckoo perched in Redgum on Homestead Creek. This nest parasite most often places its egg in the domed nest of tiny fairy-wrens, thornbills and scrubwrens.
Kangaroos were common throughout our trip with four species seen including the Red, Eastern Grey, Western Grey and Common Wallaroo (aka Euro).  
The rocky Byngnano Range and adjacent open plains habitat suited the Common Wallaroo or Euro - note the shaggy coat and large black nose, the colour or shade of their coat is quite variable.
Goats were also common throughout the trip including in National Parks and at Bowra Sanctuary Qld.
The rocky habitat also suited feral goats. We found goats in all of the National parks we visited.
Goats first arrived in Australia in 1788 with the First Fleet to be used for meat and milk. They are now widespread and feral across semi arid country where rocky hills and dense scrub provide shelter and where water is available. They have become an important source of income both as a compliment to sheep grazing and farmed alone in their own right. A lot of arid country has become so poor after 150 years of over grazing by domestic stock and feral animals, especially rabbits in the past before biological control methods were introduced, that it will no longer support a viable sheep operation and now goats are being run as the only way to extract a return from country where, I fear, the plant bank is heading towards bankruptcy.
Most of the meat is exported to the Middle East where there is a large and growing demand for Australian goat. Goats are smart animals, love climbing and are hard to control as most outback fencing barely controls sheep and cattle and offers little impediment to goats which simply walk through most fencing. The rule we were told for outback grazing properties was, “ if a goat is on your property, it is yours”. So goats are rounded up and the ones suitable for the meat market are separated out and sold and the rest are let go or destroyed. From what we have seen in National Parks and at Bowra Sanctuary the contracts let to remove goats look more like goat farming than eradication and there appears to have been no noticeable reduction in goat numbers over the years. Unless high quality and very expensive fences can be erected around the parks then keeping goats out is almost impossible and just attempting to keep the numbers under control becomes the only current option.
The problem I see with goats is that they are transforming our arid rangeland landscapes and habitats. They eat a wide range of plants and many plant species are being eliminated as there is no recruitment of new plants and trees as many species cannot survive to an age and size where they are above the browsing height of goats. Goats are reducing biodiversity and over time I fear they could cause desertification of large areas of arid Australia or at least reduce areas to much simpler ecosystems dominated by plants unpalatable to goats and other herbivores. 
If you Google “the role of goats in desertification” you will find a large amount of material on this world wide problem. The deserts of Northern Africa and the Middle East were caused by over grazing by sheep and goats, which may have taken hundreds or even thousands of years to achieve. We have been grazing hard hoofed animals in Australia’s unique environments based on ancient and fragile soils for less than 200 years. I suspect goats are not sustainable in our arid rangelands and the changes they are driving far from finished. Apart from the massive impact on our natural heritage, both flora and fauna (does anyone really know how many species we have lost already in just a couple of hundred years?), the impact of further desertification of large areas of inland Australia’s already hot and dry climate, coupled with atmospheric carbon pollution driven climate change, will not be positive and in fact could be extremely costly.
As one travels the outback one can’t help but notice the impact of over grazing and ponder, as the long distances of dirt roads roll by, just what the introduced grazing animal’s impacts are and where our treatment of this arid country is headed long term.
From Mutawintji we drove to Broken Hill where we spent a couple of days before heading east to Kinchega National Park near Menindee on the Darling River.


  1. The Bustard against the red soil is stunning. I agree that goats are causing devastation, and that it will only get worse.

  2. Those two Wedge-tailed Eagles look like first-year immature birds. Siblings often stay together for at least the first year. If "pair" just stands for 2, you are right. If "pair" means "mating partners", I doubt it. Great photos, for sure!

  3. Thanks for making the point regarding age of the two WTE's in formation flight shots. I agree they are juveniles and I did use the term pair meaning two birds and not a mating pair. None of their aerial display looked like mating interaction to me. The third bird being chased by the raven is also a juvenile. I determined it was a third bird and not one of the pair seen a little earlier and nearby based on the tatty flight feathers and the fact that I had seen the pair disappear well to the north and away from where the third bird first appeared. Thanks again for the comment - a good reminder to point out where possible the sex of birds and whether they are juveniles or adults, in breeding or non breeding plumage etc.