Friday, 30 September 2016

Tirari Desert – Part 2

We spent a few days camping on Warburton Creek both on Cowarie Station and Kalamurina Sanctuary where we recorded 35 and 38 bird species respectively. (For background see previous post: Tirari Desert – Part 1)

Waterbirds are highly nomadic and move to inland waterways when water is present with associated food. During droughts they tend to move towards the coast or permanent inland water.

The Australian Pelican is an iconic species in the Murray-Darling and Eyre Basins. Huge numbers of Pelicans undertake mass breeding events on islands in Lake Eyre on the rare occasions when conditions are right and fish are available to fuel the undertaking.

Please click on images to enlarge.

Australian Pelican

Other fish-eating waterbird species in the Eyre Basin waterways include Egrets, Spoonbills, Herons, Cormorants and Darters. Great Egrets were common along the Warburton as were White-necked and White-faced Herons. They congregated to hunt around rocky sections where fish were forced to swim through narrow channels. However, I found all of these species along the Warburton were very timid and usually took flight as soon as they saw me, even at a relatively long distance. I am not sure why they were so wary? Perhaps in this remote location they were not used to humans?

Great Egret

Pied Cormorants were also attracted by the fishing as were Great Cormorants.

Darters are another commonly encountered water bird in Lake Eyre Basin waterways.

Unlike other Tern species, which are more or less coastal species, the Caspian, Gull-billed and Whiskered Terns have adapted to inland waterways although they also inhabit coastal habitats. While we did not see any Whiskered Terns, both Caspian and Gull-billed Terns were numerous and easily seen as they patrolled up and down the Warburton on the lookout for fish.

Caspian Tern.
Gull-billed Terns are predominantly an inland species breeding on islands in shallow inland lakes.

Gull-billed Tern – this bird is a juvenile – note the dark edge to the tip of the tail feathers and upper wing coverts.

Gull-billed Tern - same bird as the photo above. Adults in full breeding plumage were also present.

Gull-billed Tern - same bird as the photo above.

Other waterbird species we saw included Grey Teal, Australian Wood Duck, Pacific Black Duck, Black-fronted Dotterel, Red-capped Plover, Red-necked Avocet and Black-winged Stilt.

Raptors are important predators in outback arid country ecosystems and Black Kites are probably the most numerous Australian raptor. We saw very large numbers of Black Kites in the Top End and as we came south from the savannah woodlands, Black Kites were constant companions all the way south. In some places between Mt Isa and Birdsville we came upon congregations of Black Kites over open plains numbering in the hundreds.

Black Kite – this is a juvenile bird.
Whistling Kites were also numerous and widespread especially near water.

Whistling Kite - note the differences from Black Kite above, in particular the tail shape.

Whistling Kites were breeding. This bird kept calling with a mate on a nest in a Coolabah less than 100 metres away.

Black-shouldered Kite (not a Letter-winged Kite – we did not see any Letter-winged Kites this trip)

Little Eagle female on a nest in Coolabah (Eucalyptus coolabah).

The much smaller male Little Eagle bringing a small food item held in the left talon to the female on the nest.

The male Little Eagle displaying his light morph plumage.

Australian Raven complaining after being chased by the Little Eagle – this one was one of a pair and they were nesting not far from the Little Eagles.

Bush birds were also breeding along the edge of the Warburton.

Rufous Songlark with moth to feed young.

Chirruping Wedgebills are arid land inhabitants. We have found them in the past in association with dense saltbush species. Along the Warburton they were using the dense lignum. They were in breeding mode and calling incessantly.

Chirruping Wedgebill.

White-plumed Honeyeaters were the most numerous honeyeater and the most numerous bush bird on the Warburton – they were also breeding.

Spiny-cheeked Honeyeaters were present but not nearly as numerous.

Cropped version of photo above showing the spiny feathers on the side of the face/cheek.

The only other species of honeyeater we saw were a few Pied Honeyeaters – this is a female.

Diamond Doves, another common arid land species, were present along the Warburton as were Crested Pigeons.

Budgerigars and a Zebra Finch at small water hole for a drink on a side channel of the Warburton.

Little Corella at a nest hollow in Coolabah - they weren’t nesting yet but birds were keeping a very possessive watch at suitable hollows.

They regularly inspected the hollows and carried out a little maintenance.

A male and female pair of Budgies – they had a nest hollow in a nearby Coolabah.

Budgies kissing?  Actually the male, on right, is feeding her.

Black-faced Woodswallows, a good example of a desert nomad, were common and there were also Masked Woodswallows about.

This is the last of 18 posts covering our Winter 2016 Top End trip. I hope you have enjoyed the posts, learnt a little and been inspired to get out there and see for yourself at least some of the areas we visited and most importantly, experience the amazing variety of bird species that live in these diverse inland and Top End environments.  

PS For those interested all of the photos in these posts have been taken hand held using a Canon 5D MKIII full frame camera body, a Canon EF 300mm 1:2.8L IS II USM lens with a Canon Extender EF 2X III fitted giving a focal length of 600mm.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Tirari Desert - Part 1

Followers of this blog may, after some 115 posts containing bird photos, be surprised to find no bird photos in this post, not one. However, Tirari Desert - Part 2 will contain bird photos from the area covered by Part 1.

On our return trip from the Top End we came south from the Savannah Way (Gulf Country) in far NW Queensland down through Lawn Hill, Mt Isa, Boulia, Birdsville and then down the Birdsville Track to Marree.  We continued south down the west side of the Flinders Ranges skirting the bottom end of the Flinders before finally heading East and home to Eastern Victoria. The north-south section of this route follows a direct line from the Gulf of Carpentaria to Spencer Gulf in South Australia.

The 517km Birdsville Track runs north-south and passes through the Sturt Stoney Desert at the top end, the Strzelecki Desert and along the Eastern edge of the Tirari Desert. The Track crosses flood plains, gibber plains, sand dune country and a low range of hills just north of Mungerannie (a cattle station homestead offering camping and fuel etc) and further south, the famous Cooper Creek. The Track is a good earth road these days however it can be closed and impassable after even relatively small amounts of rain.

Along the Birdsville Track we did a short side trip up the southern end of the Inside Track to look at the bottom end of the Goyder Lagoon - a huge floodplain of the Diamantina River. The Inside Track crosses an elevated gibber plain before abruptly dropping down to the flood plain where access via the track ended in flooded lignum – the Inside Track is often closed due to flooding. The Goyder Lagoon is a designated Important Bird Area (IBA) – for IBA details see:

Crossing a gibber plain on the Inside Track heading to the south end of the Goyder Lagoon.

The Goyder Lagoon when flooded, as it is now, is more or less inaccessible, so after a good look around we headed back to the Birdsville Track.

End of the road – Goyder Lagoon – the track continues north through the lignum.

While our main objective was to head home, we planned to spend a few days in the Tirari Desert on our way down the Birdsville Track. Many will not have heard of the Tirari Desert or know much about it, so keep reading and you will soon find out.

The following photo is from Google Maps with satellite images turned on. It shows a big-picture image of the area where the Tirari Desert is located. Down the right hand side (East side) of the photo, the Birdsville Track can be seen in yellow. The Warburton Creek snakes across the top middle half of the image joining the Macumba River from the west before turning south to enter the top end of Kati Thanda (Lake Eyre North) which can be seen at the bottom left half of the image.  The Tirari Desert is mostly a sand dune desert bounded by the Birdsville Track in the East (the Strzelecki Desert lies to the East of the Birdsville Track), Simpson Desert to the North and Kati Thanda on the West side. Another feature visible in the photo are the multitude of ephemeral lakes and the so called parallel sand dunes.

The Lake Eyre Basin is a truly vast and awesome area, with a huge variety of magnificent landscapes and a complex flora and fauna adapted to living in harsh desert environments. The Lake Eyre Basin, and more widely Central Australia, like infinity, is truly hard - even impossible, for the human mind to encompass. I often spend time viewing these areas via the satellite images on Google Maps to try and get a feel for the larger landscape that I plan to visit or that I have already experienced on our travels at ground level. I have included just a few snapshots (from space) of the area in and around the Tirari Desert. A few of the images remind me of some John Olsen paintings!

The range of hills just north of Mungerannie.

We camped on Warburton Creek on Cowarie Station and on Kalamurina Sanctuary in the Tirari Desert. The access road/track to Cowarie and Kalamurina heads NW from the Birdsville Track just north of Mungerannie.

Our camp site on Cowarie Station lies near the centre of this photo – the watercourse is Warburton Creek (formed upstream by the joining of Eyre Creek and the Diamantina River).

The Warburton River at Cowarie Station camping area. There was a good flow heading to Lake Eyre.

As for many of the Eyre Basin water courses the fringing vegetation is dominated by Coolabah (Eucalyptus coolabah) and Tangled Lignum (Muehlenbeckia florulenta). There are very few larger trees beyond the riparian strip so there is naturally a concentration of bird and other animal species along water courses. The old Coolabahs provide much needed nesting opportunities in a desert with few trees.

Sand dunes dominate the Tirari Desert.

The origin of the sand dunes is fascinating. Floods wash sand, silt and clay down from the vast catchment area (which extends from South Australia into the Northern Territory and Queensland) into Lake Eyre. When the Lake dries out strong winds blow the sediments out of the Lake bed into the surrounding country where dunes are formed. If this was not the case Lake Eyre would have filled with sediment thousands of years ago.

Note: The wind can be very strong and persistent across much of outback South Australia. The old saying “the crows fly backwards in South Australia” is well earned.

Warburton Creek meanders across what was probably once the bed of a Pleistocene mega-lake named Lake Dieri after the tribal name of Aborigines that once lived around Lake Eyre.
The Warburton’s course has been shaped by drifting sand dunes and other less discernable geomorphic features, ancient processes and a very long history - though relatively recent in terms of the geological time scale.

A sweeping bend of the Warburton closer to its discharge into Lake Eyre North.

In flat country, drainage lines become complex often with multiple channels and floods create large areas of water as the creeks cannot contain the flow.

The main course of the Warburton has many small erosion lines draining adjacent country and forming an organic growth like pattern which is only apparent from the air.

Parallel sand dunes extend like fingers towards Warburton Creek.

In an endless combination of water and wind shaping the landscape, the fingers of sand dunes encroaching on Warburton Creek from the South will be swept away and returned to Lake Eyre where the sand will again be blown out during the next big dry.

Droughts, floods and wind are major forces shaping the Tirari and other Lakes Eyre Basin deserts. Fortunately the area had received well above average rains before we arrived and the desert was blooming.

From Cowarie Station we headed to Kalamurina Sanctuary where, by prior arrangement with the Managers, we camped for a couple of days on Warburton Creek. For more information on Kalamurina see the Australian Wildlife Conservancy web site here:

Entry gate to Kalamurina Sanctuary located on the Eastern boundary in a swale just short of one of thousands of sand dunes.

Wildflowers blooming in the sand country adjacent to Warburton Creek, Kalamurina, Tirari Desert.

The Sandhill Canegrass (Zygochloa paradoxa) was also flourishing in the wet conditions. The grass is important Eyrean Grasswren habitat.
We were fortunate to visit this area during a boom time. During prolonged droughts, which are frequent here (30-40% of the time), the Warburton would have been dry and the surrounding country would have been less attractive with a meagre bird species presence. Huge dust storms when the winds get up are a real possibility and another reason not to visit during droughts.

The next post Tirari Desert - Part 2 will include some photos of birds captured along Warburton Creek.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Partridge Pigeon

Partridge Pigeons are another endemic Top End species I had been hoping to find and photograph.  However while they are regarded as being common in some places they eluded me until a 4km woodland walk near Cooinda in Kakadu National Park. Partridge Pigeons feed and nest on the ground but when flushed they often fly up to a perch in a nearby tree and sit there watching the intruder. This was the case for the pair I flushed at the start of the 4km woodland walk - the only Partridge Pigeons I saw on this trip to the Top End.

Adult Partridge Pigeon (race smithii) with distinctive red facial skin, white eye and robust bill.

There are two races of Partridge Pigeon. Geophaps smithii smithii is endemic to the Northern Territory and adjacent offshore islands while Geophaps smithii blaauwi is endemic to the Kimberly in Western Australia. The adults of the smithii race have red facial skin while blaauwi have yellow. It is intriguing to ponder what drove the evolution of yellow and red faces in an otherwise physically identical species that became geographically isolated in Australia’s Top End?

Both races are regarded as vulnerable.  For a ground feeding and “dry season” nesting Top End bird this is not surprising given the changed fire regimes across the savannah woodlands and the introduction of cattle and cats. Also the current large scale dry season so called planned or management burns, which occur during the Partridge Pigeon breeding season, are from what I saw, far too large and hot. Many other native animal species are also adversely impacted.

After the pair flushed, the first bird I found was perched high on a dead branch against a bright noonday sky. A few changes to camera settings allowed for reasonable exposure of the bird. The photo is included because it shows the distinctive head pattern well and the under-tail feathers.

First bird perched high on dead limb against a bright noonday sky.

It took me a while to locate the second bird about 50 metres away where better light allowed for more photos.

The distinctive head pattern, prominent white sides to the breast and small triangular faint pale blue feathers over the crop are visible in this photo.

The Partridge Pigeon has solid legs!

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Shining Flycatchers

Shining Flycatchers are common in Top End riparian vegetation and mangroves. They are usually found over or beside water. From my experience they are most often found in male/female pairs. The male is more shy than the female and at times both can be hard to approach, while at other times they can be quite confiding.

The male is described in Pizzey & Knight as being “entirely glossy jet-black” and in the shade this is the case.  However when seen in sunlight they can look blue as the following two photos show.

Male Shining Flycatcher. Note it is black where shaded and blue in the sun. Note also the crown feathers are raised in a small crest. Other flycatchers also do this.

This male is displaying to a female which is perched above, just out of the frame of this photo.

We were birding on the East Alligator River near Cooinda in Kakadu National Park when the male above and a female caught our attention as they foraged in Pandanus and other fringing vegetation dominated by huge paperbarks, in the area shown in the next photo.

East Alligator River Kakadu NP. It is wise in areas like this to keep several metres back from the water’s edge as very large Estuarine Crocodiles inhabit this river (and most other Top End rivers).

While we watched the pair the female took a bath in a shallow pool with sun beaming down through a gap in the foliage above.

The female Shining Flycatcher is a strikingly coloured bird with a glossy black crown and nape, rich chestnut upperparts and white below.
She made a number of quick dives into the water and returned to the same perch each time to flick water off before the next brief immersion. The small drops of water catch the sunlight and are sharp at a shutter speed of 1/1600 of a second.

This photo catches her returning to the perch.

She is about to fly down for another quick dip.

The bathing is over and she departs to preen in a less exposed and safer spot.

For me, encountering flycatchers of any species is always special. However Shining Flycatchers will always bring back fond memories of the Top End.