Monday, 30 June 2014

Culgoa National Park NSW

From Gundabooka NP we drove north to Bourke where we regrouped and took on water, fuel and food for a trip out to remote Culgoa National Park on the NSW/Qld border, a 180km drive north east from Bourke on dirt roads. 
To enlarge photos left click on any image and then view other images by scrolling backwards or forwards. Click on the cross at top right hand corner of image to close and return to post. 
Black soil road on the Culgoa River floodplain on the road to Culgoa National Park. A few mm of rain can bring travel on these roads to a halt. The trees are coolabah.
On the drive out we were lucky enough to find a flock of about 120 Red-tailed Black-Cockatoos feeding on the ground near the road. A couple of sentries perched on the top of a dead tree kept an eye on us and gave warning when I got too close. The birds on the ground departed for another spot a few hundred metres out from the other side of the road, the sentries were the last to leave. All I could do was try and get a few flight shots as they departed and a photo of the sentries.
This is one of two pairs of sentries keeping watch while about 120 of their mates
are feeding on the ground nearby.
A warning from the sentries and the birds departed in groups with the bolder more confident ones leaving their run until I had come closer.
The red tail feathers shows this bird to be a male - the females have more yellow
or orange tail feathers.
The Culgoa National Park adjoins the Culgoa Floodplain NP in Queensland. Both parks contain a range of habitats including claypans, lakes, dunes, gibber, grassy plains and the Culgoa River flood plain with extensive stands of coolabah (Eucalyptus coolabah). Other vegetation communities include mulga (Acacia aneura), gidgee (Acacia cambagei), brigalow (Acacia harpophylla) and white cypress pine.
The area is in drought with no significant rain for 18 months. The grazing properties along the route looked like they were doing it hard with mostly bare soil and next to no feed. While conditions in the park looked better it was still tough for the wildlife and we found bird diversity and especially numbers, (abundance) low in the park.
The Culgoa River in Culgoa NP, reduced by drought to isolated pools. The coolabah trees along the banks have put out extensive root systems to support themselves in the fine silt.
Now and again when travelling you have chance encounters with other travellers that prove to be rewarding and memorable and we had such an encounter at Culgoa NP. We did not expect many/any other campers at the park given the time of year, drought conditions and relatively remote location. So we were a little surprised when we arrived to find a group of four camped at the Culgoa River Campground. They were glad to see us, as their only vehicle’s batteries were flat. Sorting this out broke the ice and after introductions and the usual questions regarding why we were all there we discovered one of the group was on a trip for a post graduate Arts Degree.  
This includes research into pastoral history in the area with special interest in the Great Artesian Basin, the related natural springs and man made bores, and the critical role these sources of water played both in the past and today to underpin grazing enterprises in the area. Rainfall is simply not enough in this area to sustain pastoral operations during the hot summers, dry periods and the frequent severe droughts.
A generous offer for us to join the group in a Park Ranger led visit to many of the artesian springs/soaks, bores, tanks, dams and various old homestead buildings, including an impressive shearing shed constructed from local timber poles, was gratefully accepted and our birding plans were happily opened out for the day. During the day we ended up travelling some 150kms over a maze of bush tracks in both the NSW and Queensland sections of the parks returning to camp well after dark for a shared meal and time around the camp fire.
The following photos and captions provide a brief picture of the day with a few bird photos inserted here and there.
Some of the group at one of a number of artesian springs/soaks.
In some locations water must be lifted from the aquifer using pumps - in the past windmills were used. This one once pumped water to an adjoining tank and open earthen dam,
often referred to as tanks in the outback.
An underground water source, in this case the Great Artesian Basin aquifer, a windmill, tank and stock trough, absolutely essential in this country to run a stock grazing operation. Many of these water sources are now being removed as a way of controlling feral animals such as
goats and pigs in the park.
We stopped briefly to look at this very obliging Brown Falcon which perched quietly
as three vehicles stopped and then drove on by.
A close view of the bird above. Brown Falcons are a very successful arid land predator
- they are both widespread and numerous across much of Australia.
Approaching the old woolshed (large building on right) and associated buildings
including shearer's quarters, kitchen etc.

A pair of Galahs, a male and female, looked on from their gidgee tree as three vehicles pulled up and we all piled out to look at the woolshed and associated buildings. They would rarely see any human activity at these long abandoned buildings.
The eight stand woolshed is now used by nesting Fairy Martins and a Willie Wagtail has nested on a cable suspended from a timber beam. The large and impressive building has been
constructed from local native cypress pine poles.
Lunch at Toulby Station. The early pioneer pastoralists had to be tough and resilient
to make a go of life out here.

The day really highlighted the importance of water in the outback and its critical role in our history and ongoing occupation of this dry country and also the impact it has on the natural environment. Given our interest in birds, the way rain and other sources of water influence bird populations and movements across the landscape was really evident.
We spent another full day in the park birding in various habitats and over two full days and part of a day either side we recorded 40 bird species. Bird photography opportunities were limited by the low numbers of birds plus the birds were extremely wary and this made getting near enough for photos very hard.
There are large numbers of kangaroos in the park. Red Kangaroos look to be the most common species - this is a large old man Red.
I could not get close to this flock of Apostlebirds. They were alarmed by my presence.
A cropped version of the above image showing the birds in various stages of flight.
Chestnut-rumped Thornbills were very common - this is a less common Inland Thornbill which are similar and often forage alongside the Chestnut-rumped Thornbills.
A Peaceful Dove on left and two Diamond Doves on right having a drink in a nearly dry dam. Seed eating birds such as doves, pigeons, parrots and finches must drink daily so the presence or absence of water has a large impact on their numbers and distribution.
The visit to Culgoa was well worth while however from a birding point of view it would be better to visit this area after good rains when conditions would support a much greater diversity and abundance of birds.
After Culgoa, we decided to change our itinerary and spend more time up north and less later in Victoria where it has been cold and wet. So we drove north from Culgoa to Cunnamulla where we planned to spend four days at Bowra Santuary. For about half of the 200km drive, the country was in drought. However conditions started to slowly improve and were clearly better across the vast Mitchell grass plains south east of Bourke.
Stock grid on the road at the NSW/Qld border. The country here was very dry brigalow,
gidgee and mulga with only goats seen.
Mitchell Grass plains with much better conditions supporting cattle with calves at foot. The area around Cunnamulla was lucky to catch some useful rain a few months earlier.
At a lunch spot near a small creek line with some pools of water we found the area alive with birds including budgies, white-browed woodswallows, zebra finches nesting, and a pair of hooded robins just to name a few species.
I was surprised to find a pair of Hooded Robins, this is the male, at our lunch stop near a creek on the Mitchell Grass plains. I always thought of them as a woodland bird?
A male Zebra Finch, another arid land outback bird that does very well in hard conditions, though their numbers boom and bust with the seasons.
A female Zebra Finch. Several pairs were building nests in the tree above our lunch spot. There was water in the creek nearby and no doubt plenty of grass seeds on the adjoining grass plain.

The better conditions and bird activity at out lunch spot reinforced our decision to travel north, especially having read that Bowra had received some rain earlier in the year.

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.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Fivebough Wetlands and Cocoparra National Park NSW

From Chilton we drove north into New South Wales crossing the Murray River at Corowa and then heading to Leeton via Urana and Narrandera. 
Leeton, a Riverina irrigation town  (think of rice and cotton), is where the  Fivebough RAMSAR wetlands are located and these sites, being now well-known to birders, were on our list of places to visit. The best time to visit the wetlands is from October to March when the international shorebirds (aka waders) are in Australia, so being June we did not see any of these, though there were a few local waders about such as Black-fronted and Red-kneed Dotterels and Black-winged Stilts. 
Generally there were few water birds present as there had been good rains across the area with lots of ephemeral surface water, so birds had plenty of habitat to choose from. A better time to visit would be during dry periods when the permanent water in the Fivebough wetlands would be a magnet for large numbers of water birds.
A morning walk of several kilometres around the main permanent wetland gave a good overview of this wetland with plenty of bird species seen but not many photo opportunities.
The Golden-headed Cisticola, a common bird in wetland reeds and fringing vegetation.
Mostly they are a little shy and retreat to cover when bird photographers intrude.
Sometimes the Golden-headed Cisticola will come out and boldly perch above
the dense reeds to voice ownership of the area.
An Australian Spotted Crake feeding along the edge of a dense cumbungi reed bed.
From Leeton we headed further north to Cocoparra National Park, which covers the Cocoparra Range, located about 30km NE of Griffith. We camped in the park at Woolshed Flat camping area. The park features eroded sandstone cliffs and native black and white cypress pine forests and woodlands.
Cocoparra National Park - 400 million year old sandstone sedimentary rocks above Jack's Creek.
Other tree species include mugga ironbark, Dwyer’s mallee gum, grey box, spearwood and Blakeley’s gum. 
Over two days we recorded 36 bird species.
A Peaceful Dove foraging in the early morning light at Woolshed Flat camp ground.
Their call is a classic outback sound.
A White-browed Babbler digging for food at our camp site. These social birds are very entertaining. Being ground feeders they can be hard to approach and when
one bird sounds an alarm call they are all off to the nearest cover.
However sometimes they will come to you, especially around camp sites.
This White-browed Babbler is taking one last look at the photographer before joining
its more wary mates.
I know the world does not need yet one more Jacky Winter photo however four of them called our camp site home and their constant near presence finally led me to succumb and take one more
photo of this very photogenic and confiding species, plus this shot shows their
conspicuous white tail feathers.
Speckled Warblers regularly fed around our camp site and came in for some close shots.
It is hard to capture eye shine with this species.
Speckled Warbler with just a hint of eye shine - the dark brown brown brow indicates this is a male.
The Noisy Miner is a species many of us dislike due to their aggressive nature, however at Cocoparra they were only in groups of two or three birds and seemed very quiet.
The Southern White-face, a ground feeding bird about the size of a Thornbill. I could not
get close enough to them for photos when they were feeding out in the open.
This one took to the trees where I managed a fair shot.
There are both Pied and Grey Butcherbirds at Cocoparra. This Grey was feeding around the Jack's Creek picnic area and entertained us while we had lunch after completing the 1.5 hours walk there.
From the perch on the Blakeley's Gum trunk the bird has flown down
to pick up a food item it has spotted on the ground.
It came so close I could not resist a close up portrait.
A male and female pair of Mulga Parrots feeding on seeds and vegetation. Like the similar Red-rumped Parrot this species seems to be strongly paired.
The very colourful male Mulga Parrot.
As with many bird species the female has evolved with more somber plumage.
Red-rumped Parrots - very similar to Mulga Parrots - taken at Lake Cargelligo wastewater treatment lagoons site and included in this post for comparison with the Mulga Parrot.

A male and female pair of Red-rumped Parrots.

From Cocoparra NP we moved North to Lake Cargelligo to bird at the Round Hill Nature reserve - to be featured in next post.