The outback is characterised by extremes with periods of boom and bust affecting the life cycles of many birds. This year, the southern half of Australia suffered its driest autumn since 1902 and drought is still ravaging most of NSW. Such conditions can make for challenging birding, but it's always interesting and worth the trip.
Grey-fronted Honeyeater by Carol Probets
Our group was small with Bernice, Diane and Greg travelling with me for the duration. As we left Sydney we talked about how the drought might affect our birding: birds would be concentrated at hotspots, at available water or near towns; bush birds in habitats away from water might be harder than usual to find; and there was a chance of unexpected species turning up in unusual places. All of these were borne out.
Heading out of the city our first stop was the Bilpin Fruit Bowl, where morning tea was accompanied by Grey Fantails dancing around the verandah. The garden full of birds gave us some east coast species we would soon leave behind including Little Wattlebird, Satin Bowerbird, Lewin's Honeyeater and the introduced Red-whiskered Bulbul. King-Parrots allowed prolonged views as they quietly munched on camellia flowers.
Back on the road putting distance behind us we enjoyed a spectacle of yellows with flowering wattles lining the roadsides - we noted nine species seen from the car. Approaching Bathurst, a low-flying raptor prompted a hasty pull-off. It was a pale morph Little Eagle being harassed by a magpie and Australian Raven.
After lunch at Lake Canobolas the afternoon's driving produced more raptors. Near Cudal, a Wedge-tailed Eagle performed its territorial pot-hooking display and landed on a distant nest. Further on, the brief appearance of a Square-tailed Kite over the trees had us craning our binoculars but it was swiftly chased away by a magpie.
The grassy box woodland of Nangar National Park was a delight. A pair of Brown Treecreepers welcomed us at the park entrance. Common Bronzewings and Peaceful Doves were abundant with Red-rumped Parrots and Eastern Rosellas adding colour. A surprise yellow flash in front of the car elicited a hurried stop as we located two Turquoise Parrots sitting in a tree before they disappeared. A further sighting, just as brief, confirmed there were four. Bernice spotted two Ringnecks, White-browed Babblers made an appearance and we had close views allowing comparisons of four macropod species - Eastern Grey Kangaroo, Red-necked Wallaby, Swamp Wallaby and Wallaroo.
As we drove out through open farmland we were treated to an expert display of caterpillar-catching by a Pallid Cuckoo. Straw-necked Ibis closer to Forbes rounded out the day's birding.
Striped Honeyeater & Yellow-throated Miner by Carol Probets
Forbes Lagoon which runs through the middle of the town provided a rich pre-breakfast walk. A Blue-faced Honeyeater foraged for insects on the walls of a picnic shelter while Grey-crowned Babblers carried food into a nest. Little Grassbirds and Reed-warblers called in the reeds and our first Yellow-throated Miners of the trip chased everything in typical miner fashion, including the Welcome Swallows nesting under the footbridge.
Arriving at Gum Swamp after breakfast, we immediately noticed dozens of feral Rock Doves inhabiting every available tree hollow within the standing dead trees in the swamp. Our mood lifted when we found a White-bellied Sea-Eagle on its nest, scope views revealing two fluffy white chicks. Further searching revealed a large number of ducks including many Freckled and Pink-eared and a single Glossy Ibis. Other species included Little Friarbird, Fan-tailed Cuckoo and the ubiquitous Black Kites which would prevail for the remainder of the trip. Tree Martins swirled around, their small size allowing them to use hollows too small for the pigeons.
We had our first decent look at Apostlebirds at Condobolin, where about 500 Little Corellas festooned the riverside trees. Stopping for lunch at a creek crossing gave us a tranquil interlude with Peaceful Doves and Cockatiels putting in an appearance.
Lake Cargelligo with its expanse of water is ever the bird haven and we quickly found Great Egret, Pelican, Hoary-headed Grebes, Black-fronted Dotterel and Fairy Martins, with White-breasted Woodswallows adorning the powerlines in the town. Then it was off to the sewage ponds, bustling with birdlife: Black Swan, Shelducks, Shovelers, Red-necked Avocets, Black-winged Stilts, Sharp-tailed Sandpipers, Zebra Finches and a chorus of Little Grassbirds singing in the reeds. Cockatiels shot by and a great swirling mass of woodswallows moved over, too high to tell how many were White-browed and how many were Masked. But we were most entranced by the tiny Baillons Crakes working the edges of the reeds, looking stunning in the sunlight.
Next, we were privileged to have access onto the property "Gurrungully" thanks to the hospitality of the owner John. Walking along the shore of the Sheet of Water lagoon, highlights included a pair of White-bellied Sea-Eagles, Black-fronted and Red-kneed Dotterels side by side, Striped Honeyeater and Diamond Firetail. We had brilliant views of a group of Purple-backed Fairy-wrens, previously regarded as a subspecies of the Variegated. The deeper blues of the male compared to his coastal cousins was breathtaking.
Callitris at Mutawintji by Carol Probets
We opted to return to the sewage ponds before breakfast where we added Whiskered Terns, a Spotless Crake calling, good views of the reed-warblers and scope views of a perched Whistling Kite uttering its distinctive call.
Leaving town the drought started to become more obvious. Chat Alley seemed desolate except for the faint call of White-winged Fairy-wrens moving furtively through the lignum. Soon we saw the first Emus of the trip, not realising these would also be the last for several days.
Arriving at the old "wheat paddock" in the mallee a kid ran across the track - not a human one but the first of hundreds of feral goats we were to see over the coming days.
It's always a pleasure to wander in the mallee, even when the birdlife is quiet. Weebills were most prominent and we soon found Rufous Whistler, White-eared Honeyeater and the mallee form of the Spotted Pardalote. An inquisitive Inland Thornbill checked us out and we eventually had great views of a male and female Gilbert's Whistler. But unsurprisingly in such dry conditions, most of the mallee specialists eluded us. Apart from birds we found interesting belid weevils on a flowering acacia thanks to Diane's keen eye for invertebrates.
At a dry Whooey Tank we added Chestnut-rumped Thornbills and Southern Whiteface before heading off toward Mt Hope. A blackish raptor by the roadside made us look closely but it was a very dark Brown Falcon.
Counting the kilometres we watched for Janene's Grey-fronted Honeyeater site, stopping at a promising patch of mallee and bingo! Grey-fronted Honeyeaters as soon as we got out of the car. Other birds here included Striped Honeyeater, Hooded Robin and more White-browed Woodswallows.
Diane & Leopardwood at Mutawintji by Carol Probets
Closer to Cobar a Red-winged Parrot landed next to the road, causing a rapid U-turn for our only view of this species.
The day got off to a great start with 3 Banded Lapwings on the Cobar racetrack. Eremophilas were flowering on the Common, attracting Spiny-cheeked Honeyeaters for nectar and an Australian Ringneck munching on the flowers, giving stunning views all round. The good sightings continued with male and female Hooded Robins, Southern Whiteface and a party of Chestnut-crowned Babblers. A Crested Bellbird feeding on the ground played hide-and-seek with us as it hopped in and out from behind bushes.
Back in town, Brown Honeyeaters provided a distraction while we collected lunch, then Newey Reservoir proved yet another hotspot with non-stop birds delaying our departure. These included Sharp-tailed Sandpipers, Black-fronted and Red-kneed Dotterels, Pelican, Darter, Black-winged Stilt and Silver Gull. A Spotted Bowerbird was collecting green eucalyptus leaves and carrying them away to an unseen bower, Apostlebirds were building their mud nest, a Grey Shrike-thrush was singing most beautifully and a Restless Flycatcher gave us uncharacteristically good views. A flowering Mugga Ironbark was attracting White-plumed, Spiny-cheeked and Striped Honeyeaters.
With a big day's travelling ahead we reluctantly dragged ourselves away but after a few hours on the road it became obvious our lingering at Cobar had been time well spent. As the country opened up and the sky got bigger, the effect of the drought was palpable. Places we would normally stop were quiet and we saw not a skerrick of open water for nearly 450 km, the only exception being Wilcannia where dozens of Black Kites circled lazily over the Darling River.
Closer to Broken Hill we explored an area of gnarled and twisted Acacia where the only sound was the dry "prrt!" of a Singing Honeyeater. Here, tiny flashes of electric blue betrayed the presence of Satin Azure butterflies which disappeared when they landed. The Grey Mistletoe here is their larval host, which in turn takes nourishment from the Acacias.
Our motel in the ever-welcoming town of Broken Hill was to be our comfortable base for the next 4 nights.
Eremophila longifolia by Carol Probets
By dawn a fierce wind was blowing and predicted to continue all day. How fortunate that this was the day we had some scheduled time out from birding - but not until the afternoon.
Bernice stayed behind with only Diane and Greg joining me for a drive out to Silverton, a small village with a quintessentially outback feel often used as a location for filming. But first, the search for birds. A dry creek bed provided limited shelter from the wind and we found a mixed flock of Chestnut-rumped and Yellow-rumped Thornbills, Purple-backed and White-winged Fairy-wrens, the latter only brown birds. We heard the sweet notes of a Western Gerygone and a Pied Butcherbird. Suddenly, a flock of 1000-2000 Little Corellas appeared from nowhere, flying right over our heads in a clamorous mass and swirling in unison like a murmuration of starlings.
Heading further out we noticed an ominous plume of dust gathering momentum on the vast Mundi Mundi Plain. We watched as it grew larger and closer. On reaching Umberumberka Reservoir the landscape was bathed in an eerie red haze reminiscent of the build-up to a big dust storm. From the picnic area we looked out over the cracked red base of the dry reservoir. A pair of Wedge-tailed Eagles circled above.
Fortunately (to misquote a famous song) "the raised dust stayed mainly on the plain" as we retreated to Broken Hill for lunch in a cafe; the afternoon given to exploring the town and its art. By late afternoon the wind was starting to ease ever so slightly and Diane joined me for a walk at the Living Desert sculpture site. With the waterhole dry, our hopes of Painted Finches were scuttled but we did enjoy the varied vegetation, and watching Red Kangaroos and Euros emerge at sunset.
Thankfully the wind had stopped and the four of us set off for Menindee Lakes, birding along the way. A road-killed kangaroo gave us the chance for very close views of a scavenging Black Kite and Brown Falcon. At another spot we found Black-faced Woodswallows hovering like songlarks. Incredibly, this was to be our only good view of what is normally a very common bird in the area.
Approaching Menindee we crossed a channel of water flowing from Lake Pamamaroo into a dry Lake Menindee, but as expected, the other lakes were dry. Most bird activity was to be found along the River Drive, a wonderland of spreading River Red Gums lining the serpentine form of the Darling River.
Here were cormorants, pelicans, Great Egrets, Pacific Black Ducks, Reed-warblers and Whistling Kites. We found Peaceful Doves, Common Bronzewings, Bee-eaters, Striped, Spiny-cheeked and White-plumed Honeyeaters, Tree and Fairy Martins and our first Mistletoebird of the trip. Our idyllic lunch spot had a resident Brown Treecreeper going back and forth with bits of lichen to line its nest.
Raised dust on Mundi Mundi 15 Sep 2018 by Carol Probets
The sandy landscape away from the river was much quieter with Chestnut-rumped Thornbills and White-winged Fairy-wrens our main finds, the latter only showing brown birds. To our frustration we hadn't yet found a blue male White-winged - but that would soon be rectified.
Driving back near Lake Pamamaroo, a flash of bright blue caught my eye and we screeched to a halt (figuratively speaking). Before long everyone had a male White-winged Fairy-wren in sight. New for half the group, his brilliance was well worth the wait.
Nearby, at least 5 White-backed Swallows circled above and a female Mistletoebird landed right in front of us in an Acacia, giving us a great display of what Mistletoebirds do so well: eating mistletoe fruit and defecating with a little dance to ensure the sticky seed is deposited on a branch.
A faint but distinctive chirruping call distracted us from this performance and we soon tracked down a group of 5 Chirruping Wedgebills, well disguised in a dead shrub. We stopped for a view of the puddle that was Lake Menindee before starting the drive back to Broken Hill.
A short walk through Old Man Saltbush not far out of town rewarded us with a Redthroat sitting high and singing his elaborate song.
Today's destination, Mutawintji National Park, is a place of great cultural significance to the Aboriginal people, dominated by the rugged red rocks of the Byngnano Ranges containing hidden pools and rich art sites.
We arrived at Homestead Creek to find a mixed flock of White-backed Swallows and Tree Martins swooping overhead, with Rainbow Bee-eaters, White-breasted Woodswallows, Common Bronzewings, Peaceful Doves and Chestnut-rumped Thornbills nearby. Lunch under a red gum full of character was followed by a walk into the gorge under gnarled old Callitris trees clinging tenuously to rusty rock walls. Diane and I continued further along the gorge while Greg and Bernice lingered nearer the art cave. As we returned to the car, a pair of Mulga Parrots flew in and were seen by all.
Euro at Living Desert by Carol Probets
Our next wander was through the more open habitat at the start of the Mutawintji Gorge walk, with several species of Eremophila in flower. Spiny-cheeked Honeyeater, Pied Butcherbird, Southern Whiteface, Yellow-rumped Thornbills and Nankeen Kestrel were present, seemingly in defiance of the dry. The landscape was the epitome of drought and sadly ravaged by feral goats. Diane and I continued on to a rock outcrop admiring the ever-graceful Leopardwood trees.
We returned to find Greg focussed like a Zen master with camera pointed at an Eremophila. We quietly approached to see the subject of his attention: a beautiful Mulga Parrot feeding on the flowers. Actually, three Mulga Parrots as it turned out.
The long drive back to Broken Hill was taken slowly with plenty of kangaroos to watch out for as the sun dipped toward the horizon. As twilight descended with about 39km to go, we spotted an unexpected shape beside the road - an Australian Bustard! Unfortunately one wing drooped considerably, perhaps the result of a car strike. We watched it disappear regally into the long grass.
About 10km further on, the distinctive form of a Spotted Nightjar flew across the road and disappeared into the darkness. We made it back in time for dinner at the Astra Hotel with an amazing selection of dessert to commemorate our final night in Broken Hill.
It was time for us to start the journey home with two long travelling days ahead. Three Ground Cuckoo-shrikes were a lucky find 106 km into the drive. Stopping again at Wilcannia we searched thoroughly for the Red-tailed Black-Cockatoos that had so far eluded us, again without luck but we did enjoy watching an Emu drinking from the river, along with a single Straw-necked Ibis.
We pushed on to Bulla Park rest area for lunch, where Yellow-throated Miners piled around the drinking trough six at a time. A brave Striped Honeyeater snuck in for a quick drink, a party of Apostlebirds moved through and two attractive Western Grey Kangaroos came to check us out.
White-browed Treecreeper by Carol Probets
But the best birding of the day was a spur-of-the-moment stop in mulga about 70km west of Cobar. First bird seen was a male Red-capped Robin - a species we should have seen many times but astonishingly, this was the first of the trip. Obviously they're all closer to the coast, judging by the reports. Next was a pair of Hooded Robins, Red-rumped Parrots, and then a treecreeper on a Mulga trunk caught my attention. It called as if to confirm its identity: White-browed Treecreeper. An excellent bonus!
Mulga gave way to Bimble Box as we approached Nyngan and the country was tinged with green, evidence of recent rainfall.
First we headed down to the river where Peaceful Doves, White-winged Choughs, Grey-crowned Babblers, a Darter and Wood Ducks were among the species noted. Rainbow Lorikeets were a surprise addition as they continue their expansion westwards.
Along the highway we kept eyes peeled for anything new, but instead saw lots of Emus to make up for their absence further west, a few Blue Bonnets, more Rainbow Lorikeets at Narromine, and closer to Dubbo, a fly-over by 3 late-migrating Superb Parrots.
The wonderful Burrendong Arboretum was our destination for lunch with cake brought to celebrate Bernice's birthday. The native plantings here included a large and spectacular Grevillea johnsonii which was attracting various honeyeaters. Driving around the lower section we found Dusky Woodswallows along with White-browed and Masked perched in a tree instead of soaring high above, Eastern Rosella, Jacky Winter, and a calling White-throated Gerygone. Later, a group of Grey-crowned Babblers gave extended views as they sat and preened.
Our final final birding stop was Lake Wallace, where we found Freckled and Blue-billed Ducks, Grey Teal, Hardheads, Great Crested Grebes, Little Ravens, Reed-warblers and Superb Fairy-wrens. We searched for the Black Honeyeater that had been reported a couple of days earlier but it must have moved on. A Latham's Snipe flushed from the lake edge and a Musk Duck was displaying. A worthy finish before heading over the mountains to Sydney.
We all agreed that seeing the country in drought was a worthwhile experience. It provided real perspective on the nomadic movements of our birdlife and an appreciation of the resilient species that survive in the toughest of places.
By Carol Probets guiding for FTB
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