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.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

From Bourke to Wilcannia - down the west side of the Darling River

From Bourke we headed 31 km west on the Wanaaring Road before turning south west down the dirt road to Louth which is an historic hamlet on the Darling River at one of the two crossing points before Wilcannia. The other is at Tilpa. The journey covered a little over 300kms of dirt roads - dry weather only, which were mostly in good condition.
Just out of Bourke we passed a large cotton gin (factory for processing cotton), a massive earth dam to store irrigation water pumped from the Darling and vast flood irrigated paddocks for growing cotton, when there is enough water available. This was a stark reminder of the very vexed water issues in the Murray Darling basin.
It does seem odd in such a drought-ravaged land to be growing such a water hungry crop as cotton in an area where the average annual evaporation rate is around 2,000mm? No doubt there is a range of reasons why cotton is grown out here and further up the catchment in Queensland around towns such as St George.
The first pastoral industry on the Darling was sheep grazing for wool production, which commenced back in the 1850’s - 60’s. The grazing properties were 99 year Government leases and they were huge at around a million acres. The Toorale Station is a good example of one of the old and large sheep stations. After the 99 year lease recently ran out the NSW Government made the station a National Park, which is to officially open in July 2014. Final preparations were being made when we passed through.
Northern entrance to Toorale NP.
Heading south across one of the vast treeless grass plains, Toorale NP.
Along our route between Bourke and Wilcannia there were three main habitat or landscape types;

1) large, flat treeless grass plains where the skies are huge and you can see the earth is not flat as the horizon is curved and the road ahead disappears over the curve;

2) coolabah and black box flood plains (the redgums hug the banks of the river and are not found out on the floodplains) with flat, grey, cracking or self mulching soils and,

3) salt bush or chenopod country, vast areas of salt bush with many species and the odd trees, especially Leopardwood trees. In addition to these three main types there are smaller areas of sand dunes and higher red sand stony mulga country.
Darling River flood plain with coolabah (E coolabah)
Often referred to as chenopod, salt bush country with Leopardwood trees
in Paroo - Darling National Park.
Higher country off the flood plain with red sandy and stony soils and mulga (Acacia aneura).
Shortly after passing the historic Toorale homestead site we crossed the Warrego River where 13 Brolga caught our attention and we stopped for morning tea. The brolgas were far too wary for any photos however a pair of White-breasted Woodswallows allowed close enough approach for some shots.
There are six species of woodswallow in Australia, these are White-breasted Woodswallows perched in dead tree at the Warrego River crossing, Toorale NP. In the outback, like other woodswallow species, these birds are highly nomadic.
Just north of Louth a small flock of Pink, aka Major Mitchell’s, Cockatoos flew across the road in front of us and landed in a redgum/coolabah woodland beside the road. About six pairs of birds were perched in various locations with the odd single bird still flying around.  Judging by the calls some birds were still feeding out on the open plain nearby.
Like many other cockatoo and parrot species in Australia, Pink Cockatoos form strong pair bonds.
One pair seemed to be investigating a tree hollow so I approached, hoping for some closer shots.
One of the pair was investigating this tree hollow.
Just as I was closing in and the birds seemed comfortable with my presence a very noisy truck with a trailer came by and scared the birds off. We had hardly seen a vehicle all day to that point. It did however give a brief flight shot opportunity.
This flight shot shows their pink under-wing.
At Louth we crossed the bridge over the Darling to the east side for a brief tour of the old paddle steamer port town. Paddle steamers were a vital transport link for the sheep stations on the Darling, bringing in supplies and taking out wool.
The bridge across the Darling at Louth. In big floods all roads leading to this bridge
would be under water.
From Louth we travelled a short distance further downstream to Trilby Station where we camped on the river for two nights.  Public access to the Darling River for free camping is limited along much of its length on both sides however a number of stations offer various
levels of accommodation and camping. 
Our camp site on the Darling at Trilby Station, one of many with plenty of privacy from other sites as they are strung out along several kilometres of river bank.
Our stay at Trilby Station gave us a valuable insight into current day operation of these large Darling River sheep grazing stations and what life is like in this outback environment. The current owners are the fifth generation on Trilby and the booklet of notes provided on station life and the Murray family history is very interesting.
We took the self-guided mud map tour of part of the property, which now covers 320,000 hectares following the recent addition of a couple more leases. The tour added more value to our stay. A stay at Trilby or one of the other stations offering accommodation and camping along the Darling is highly recommended.
Even though the area is in drought we managed to record 46 species of birds over the two days we were on Trilby Station. The billabongs around the homestead were bone dry empty, when they are full you could easily add 10 water bird species to the 46 and there would also be a lot more nomadic species such as honeyeaters and woodswallows present.
The Darling River and tributaries such as the Culgoa, Warrego and Paroo, just to name a few, all have their upstream origins in Queensland. These rivers run through flat country and have large flood plains. The average annual rainfall out in this country is around 250mm and this can fall at any time of year and with an annual evaporation rate of around 2,000mm any rain falling over the very hot summer months is not of much use as it soon disappears.
When large floods occur it is not due to local rain but large cyclone driven high rainfall events up in Queensland. Unlike rivers near the coast coming off the Great Dividing Range where you expect flow to increase as you move down stream, out here river flows can often decrease as you move downstream. The water is lost to evaporation and seepage as it fills up the vast flood plains, billabongs and channels.
However every now and again a really large flood event occurs. The stations usually have a month’s warning that a big flood is coming down so they can prepare by moving stock off the flood plains, ensuring levee banks around the homestead and various critical assets are in good order and getting in supplies because they know they will be isolated for many months. Trilby was cut off for four months in the last big flood with the only access via air or boat. No doubt large floods cause a lot of inconvenience but the station owners know that when the water eventually recedes off the flood plains, there is going to be a bonanza of stock feed.
The scale or size of the grazing operations out here is hard to appreciate. On our mud map tour we drove from the homestead on the Darling River, some seven or eight kilometres across the flood plain to eventually reach high ground. In doing so we passed along the boundary of the “10,000 acre” paddock, Trilby has 18 paddocks.
Just think for a moment how big a 10,000 acre paddock is. If it were square each side would be about 6.4 km long giving a total boundary length of about 25 kms. At a cost of about $4 per metre it would cost about $102,000 to erect a fence around the 10,000 acre paddock. Imagine rounding up stock in such paddocks, no wonder they do it on motorbikes with directions given by radio from a plane to the riders.
Another interesting snippet of information picked up from the notes provided stated that most, perhaps all, grazing properties in the western division were now only viable due to the goat meat trade. The huge properties which once generated fabulous amounts of wealth based on sheep and wool, now ride, at least in part, on the goats back? I will have more to say about goats in a future post and their impact on the fragile outback environment.
Camping on the banks of the Darling gave us an opportunity to observe pelicans at close range. Most water holes, stretches of rivers with water, billabongs etc in the outback usually have some pelicans present, so there must be large numbers scattered across the outback! There were 13 on the river at our campsite on Trilby. They seemed to spend a lot of the day and the night feeding. The technique involved upending and plunging their bills deep into the water. They often foraged in pairs.
Thirteen Pelicans fed on the section of river at our camp site on Trilby Station. They fed in pairs or as single birds. This was their foraging method.
A late afternoon break from feeding, they rarely came together in groups greater than two.
They seemed to capture some small food item every second or third plunge, this could easily be recorded as they spent some time adjusting the food item before upending their bills to swallow. There was much grunting, a little like pigs, and the odd altercation over hunting areas. Downstream at Kinchega NP they were inactive all day and only seemed to forage at night when they were often quite noisy splashing and grunting as they foraged. Each bird seemed to come out of the water and waddle up the steep bank to defecate. There was plenty of white wash on the banks to confirm this practice. Were they avoiding polluting their feeding area? Did they always do this? It would be impossible to tell if they defecated in the water?
Every now and again they would come briefly together and on one occasion they were all out on the bank early one morning to enjoy a patch of sun.
A rare group gathering on the steep bank in a patch of early morning sun.
Note the white-wash on the bank.
A trip down the Darling River is a journey rich in both human and natural history, a journey with many dramatic landscapes and huge skies, a real outback experience.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Bowra Sanctuary Queensland 2014

From Culgoa National Park (see previous post) we drove north west to Cunnamulla in Queensland to pick up fuel, food and water before heading out to Bowra Sanctuary located a short distance north west of the town on the west side of the Warrego River. This was our fifth visit to Bowra. For more information about Bowra Sanctuary see the post from our 2013 visit at  and the Australian Wildlife Conservancy web site

After experiencing drought conditions and a dearth of birds for several weeks, especially birds to photograph, Avithera was craving a good bird fix and from previous visits to Bowra we were fairly sure it would deliver. 

And deliver it did. On our first full day at Bowra we recorded 54 species and on the following three days 56, 48 and 58. Over the four days we recorded 85 species. At Bowra, bird call is held each evening at 6pm when all the birders at Bowra gather and the caretakers record the total species seen each day and the largest number of birds seen at any one location. During our stay the daily totals varied from 85 to 88 and the total number of species seen for 30 days in June was 135.

By comparison over the previous few weeks we recorded for our stays in three national parks the following bird species totals: Cocoparra 36, Gundabooka 29 and Culgoa 43 (our visits to these parks are recorded in three recent posts – to find these posts see blog archive).

On our first day at Bowra 13 bird species were photographed, breaking the bird photo drought. This is a selection from our June 2014 stay at Bowra.
This male Cotton Pygmy-Goose turned up at Bowra - way outside of its normal range and wet tropics habitats, a rare vagrant.
There were good numbers of Budgerigars at Bowra, many breeding. This pair selected a hollow in need of some enlargement near our camp site. The hole is less than a metre above the ground. The male has a blue cere and the female a pale cere that becomes brown in the breeding season.
The female does all the nest work and the male stands watch. Here she is entering the hollow.
The female emerging with some rotten wood she is removing from the nest hollow.
The female interrupted her work for a kiss at regular intervals - maintaining the pair bond I guess. This exchange often involves the male feeding the female.
Bowra is a good place to look for Chestnut-breasted Quail-thrush which are found in mulga scrub on hard stony ground. However they are not that easy to find and harder to photograph. I was lucky to find a group of three on our first morning at Bowra.
They are ground dwelling birds that favour cover and often run across open ground so many of my shots were taken of the birds on the move when they were in the open. Their colours allow them to blend in well with the rusty red earth.
This bird flew up on the a fallen dead tree where it perched briefly as it checked me out. They have small wings and are weak fliers.
A pair of Little Woodswallows, a group of about a dozen birds found at the Saw Pits area.
A Little Woodswallow. I find all six woodswallow species very attractive birds. They are great aerialists as their name suggests and they take all of their food on the wing.
The Black-faced Woodswallow. There were also good numbers of White-browed Woodswallows at Bowra - see 2013 Bowra post for photos of this species.
The Red-backed Kingfisher, a real arid outback country bird which is quite happy living well away from water. There were also Sacred Kingfishers at Bowra which seemed to 
outnumber the Red-backed.
A pair of Restless Flycatchers were living around the Shearer's Quarters - I managed to catch this one on the roof early one morning.
The stately Australian Bustard - there was at least one pair at Bowra. We found them way out on a grassy plain and attempted to get close for photos, however they were very wary.
Both birds took off, giving an opportunity for a few flight shots, this one with the large wings up.
........... and a shot with wings down.
Another stately bird, or perhaps elegant is a better description - the Brolga.
Brolgas are hard to approach and the pair above soon took off. This flight shot
captured a moment as the bird shed a flight feather.
We found a cat at the Saw Pits waterhole and thought the White-plumed Honeyeaters were making a racket with their alarm calls due to its presence. However we then found this Collared Sparrowhawk in the same spot - this raptor is skilled hunter which preys on small birds is much more likely to be the cause of the honeyeater's alarm.
We were looking for Hall's Babblers in a mulga woodland - without success as it turned out - I was happy to come across a small party of Splendid Fairy-wrens during our search for the Halls and get a snap of this male - they really are splendid.
Hooded Robins are fairly common at Bowra. This one came out from its preferred
woodland habitat to forage in the open late one afternoon.
There are three sub species of Galah in Australia. This is a male and female pair, sub species albiceps, the same sub species we have in Victoria however the birds up in Queensland are a deeper richer pink. The male on the left has a dark eye and the female a red eye.

It was a little hard leaving Bowra to head south to Bourke and resume our planned itinerary after our unplanned diversion north into Queensland. After Bourke, for the next leg of the trip, we planned to spend a few days following the Darling River down to Wilcannia.