Kununurra – Finch Capital of Australia
Saturday 24th. Kununurra.
After long flights we assembled at our Lakeside Resort motel where after booking in and freshening up most of us made our way down to the foreshore to get a taste of what was in store for us over the next week. We were greeted by crimson, star and double bar finches, green pygmy-geese, rufous-throated honeyeaters, babblers and an assortment of other birds. A large number of swallows (white-breasted woodswallows and what appeared to be red-rumped swallows) soared and circled above. A great start!
Later we sat down for pre-dinner drinks and to get to know each other and our local guide Chris Done. Dinner was good and appreciated by all and most decided to retire early in order to recover from a long day and to ready ourselves for the week ahead.
Sunday 25th. Mirima (Hidden Valley) National Park, Kelly’s Knob and Lakeside.
Despite our best intentions of departing for Mirima at 0730 we could not drag ourselves away from the great activity virtually on our doorstep along the lake shore. Again the finches and honeyeaters were present as were babblers, straw-necked ibis, wandering whistling-ducks and blue-faced honeyeaters.
Mirima National Park is right on Kununurra’s doorstep and we walked among the 350 million year old sandstone to the head of Hidden Valley where we climbed the track to the view point. Some of the bird highlights were the white-quilled rock-pigeon and an aerial battle between a pretty game (or delusional) nankeen kestrel and a brown falcon. Most of us checked out a great bowerbird bower and had good views of pied butcher birds and black-faced cuckoo-shrikes too. Unfortunately the much hoped for sandstone shrike-thrush did not put in an appearance.
Christine at Mitchell Plateau
Off to Kelly’s Knob we went for a view over the town and part of the irrigation area. Chris pointed out some of the features and crops and promised to show/tell more as we went along. After an afternoon siesta for most, it was back to our rich pickings along the Lily Creek foreshore of Lake Kununurra to finish off the day.
Monday 26th. Ord River (Lake Kununurra) Cruise and Lake Argyle Road.
0615 was our departure time and all of us were there, bright-eyed and bushy tailed ready to board the sleek and powerful Kestrel under the expert hand of skipper Grant Lodge. Grant was a mine of information and local knowledge and he before long he had shown us Baillon’s and white-browed crakes, ³lifers² for at least some of us!! Comb-crested jacanas were prolific as were darters and pied and little black cormorants. A colony of ³a million² red and little black flying foxes had attracted the attention of two juvenile white-bellied sea-eagles which allowed us great views. Out from the shelter of Lily Creek we sped up the slightly rougher waters of Lake Kununurra to a small creek at Parker Poynt where Grant thought we just might see a rufous night heron. And we did!! Yellow oriole was also added to the list here and then it was off to Maxwell Creek where we saw a great display of jousting shining fly-catchers. On we went through Carlton Gorge where we saw Chris’s Eucalyptus ordensis as well as a pair of short-eared rock wallabies in a cave. Nesting ospreys and more sea-eagles as well as the ³first² wedge-tailed eagles of the season also graced us with their presence as we sped up to Triple-J’s camp near Spillway. Breakfast here was greatly appreciated as all that frenetic bird watching had left us famished. Bush birds and mistletoes were subject of much discussion after breakfast and then it was on to Spillway Creek where Grant told us about the irrigation area and the huge reservoir of Lake Argyle. Our search for the elusive black bittern was not rewarded but views of freshwater crocs, black-fronted dotterels and perfect views of a pair of white-browed crakes helped to ease the pain. A pair of gull-billed terns mid- stream on the way home surprised us all, not least of all Grant.
Back at Lakeside we relaxed and then after lunch headed out again along the Victoria Highway stopping first near (but not too close to) the towns salubrious rubbish tip seeing a number of bush bird species. A highlight in the area was Bernice’s sighting of a pair of bush-stone curlews. On we went to the Lake Argyle road and whilst a stop at Spillway Creek was not too productive, the sheer volume of earth and rock which had been eroded out of here was obvious and our understanding of the power of the water in full flow was increased.
Next spot was the Grevillea pterydifolia forest near the Spillway turnoff. The air was thick with the heady aroma of the nectar from the glorious orange flowers. Several honey eaters including browns, rufous chinned and white chinned partook of the bounty. Next stop was Dead Horse Spring and again we were treated to unexpected displays of wildlife including crocodiles, Merten’s water monitors and some great birds including the almost ubiquitous rufous-throated honey eaters, another pair of Baillon’s Crakes, a pheasant coucal, golden-headed cisticola’s and a spectacularly displaying red-backed fairy wren.
The trip home to Kununurra was punctuated by a stop for spinifex pigeons which provided a great finale to the day.
Tuesday 27th. Wyndham.
One of our 3 Choppers!
The Pumpkin Springs track had been totally obliterated since Chris’ last visit so an impromptu stop was made near Yearling Creek where birding proved difficult in the strong breeze. However an obliging rufous whistler gave us all great views and a lone hooded robin was the subject of much debate.
On to what was likely to be the day’s main act at Marlgu Billabong (Parry Lagoon Nature Reserve). Dozens of brolgas in a number of groups were our fist sign of things to come as we drove past the drying swamp lands. The Wireless Hill ruins reminded Chris of the story of the station’s significant role during World War 1 when it was one of the several stations used to pin-point the location of the German cruiser Emden allowing the Australian navy ship Sydney to locate and destroy her near the Cocos Keeling Islands in November 1914. Down to the bottom of the hill we went and a cloud of dust erupted from the road ahead where a small flock of peaceful doves led us to a group of finches. The fun had begun and several finch varieties and a yellow white-eye were recorded here. Later, out on the board-walk and in the hide, we were treated to great views of plumed whistling-ducks, Eurasian coots, pied and Nankeen night herons, magpie geese and various others in the still very full wetlands. This was great birding and to be able to see from the comfort of the shaded hide was a real bonus.
Next stop was the Wyndham Hotel where barra and chips was a popular lunch choice. Off we went, this time to the top of the Bastion where we saw the five rivers (Ord, Durack, Forrest, Pentecost and King) from their namesake lookout. This must be one of the most spectacular lookouts in Australia. Next we combed Wyndham for finches but had no luck finding the much sought after Gouldians. We did however add to the already impressive list with a pair of amorous long tail finches displaying in gay abandon, on the power line. What a long day but it was not over yet and a black breasted buzzard following the Victoria Highway got the adrenalin going again. Kununurra’s sewerage treatment works was our last stop and here we were rewarded with more plumed whistle-ducks and black wing stilts amongst other species. Only 3 days into our trip and already we have notched up over 100 species.
Wednesday 28th. Mitchell Plateau.
An early start was the order of the day so we were ready for our 0530 bus pickup and 0600 flight. Bob piloted our Piper Chieftain at a steady 8000′ over yesterday’s Parry Lagoon and Wyndham destinations and on to the Mitchell Plateau. Pied butcher birds piped our arrival with their melodious carolling and not long after we were treated to a display of precision flying and landing by our three Bell Jet Ranger helicopters. A six minute flight had us down to the Mitchell Falls campground without any of us having to raise a sweat (what a great way to fly!) and then it was off down the Punumii Umpuu walk track towards the falls. Good black grass wren habitat (BGW) was reached reasonably soon and we sat and watched, called and waited for the birds to show themselves but without luck. A couple of us decided to stake out this area rather than go on further (it was an extremely hot day and the track was rough) and the rest of us looked for likely habitat further on. Would you believe that the BGW’s showed up about twenty minutes further on and all present had a great views. Our next objective (a gwion/Bradshaw art site) was some 2.5 km further down the track and the sprinters left some of us in their dust. The plodders decided eventually to retrace steps slowly to the campground always on the lookout for more BGWs as well as other birds. The party regrouped and swapped yarns, the sprinters having reached Big Merten Falls and backtracking to the gwion site. All were impressed by the art and overwhelmed by the likelihood that it is probably 20 -30000 years old. Next objective we wanted to see was the yellow-eyed partridge pigeon which we sought, somewhat sceptically in the campground. However, there it was, along with some long-tailed finches, and again, good viewing was had by all.
Our chopper flight back to the plateau was efficient and enjoyable again and then it was back into the Chieftain with Bob and a 70 minute flight home. Another great day!!
Thursday 29th. Lake Argyle and Ord River Irrigation Area.
Another early start saw us heading up the road to Lake Argyle where we met up with Greg Smith who welcomed us aboard the Cisticola for our trip on the huge Lake Argyle. We had one main objective which was to see yellow chats and Greg also whet our appetites with suggestions of Gouldian finches and sandstone shrike thrushes (SST) as well.
The lake is incredibly big. We travelled about 40 km south from where it was still a further 30-40 km to the southern end. It was probably 30-40 km wide too!! Greg knew the spots though and soon showed us many birds and also fed us a tasty breakfast on board in a secluded bay. As we sat quietly we were being observed by a pair of white- bellied sea-eagles guarding a huge nest in a dead tree, masked finches, sacred kingfishers and various others. Now it was time to seek out the SST and we cruised quietly close to their favoured cliff face. A quick glimpse was afforded to some and no amount of looking and coaxing would bring them back into view. Short eared rock wallabies performed gravity defying leaps up and across the face and a Kimberley sand monitor also showed his rock climbing skills. We were treated to some calling from the SST but still no good views. Oh well, that’s birding!! Next we went to Chat Island and it did live up to its name, giving all of us great sightings of the brilliant yellow males and more lemony females. The bustard was another ³trip² bird there and several other species kept us occupied as well. Back we waded to the Cisticola and although we were not able to pick up the Gouldians we did go back to (and see and hear clearly) the sandstone shrike thrushes.
Back we went to the boat ramp where Greg was given a warm round of applause for a job well done.
Lunch in the busy Lake Argyle Lodge was followed by a trip back to Kununurra and then north along Weaber Plains Road into the Irrigation area. Chris took us to the Tropical Forestry Services seed orchard and explained what was going on there. Indian sandalwood is now in very short supply from the traditional sources in India and is now a major crop in the valley. On a comparative basis the sandalwood should be worth much more than other horticultural crops even though the rotation time of 14 years is a bit off putting to some. Sandalwood produces wonderfully aromatic oil in its heartwood and this and all parts of the tree can be utilised commercially. Products such as the high end perfumes, religious carvings, incense sticks (2 billion per day!!), skin products and cosmetics as well as medicinal products are just some of the end uses. Sandalwood is complicated to grow because it is what is known as an obligate hemi-parasite. It is given a pot host (an Alternantera) in the nursery and then goes through a series of other field hosts which are all planted along with the sandalwood in the paddock. Currently Cassia siamea, Cathornion umbellatum and Dalbergia latifolia are used for this purpose.
Onwards we went to where big machinery was in the midst of extending the irrigation infrastructure to bring more land into production. All the while we looked out for new birds and had good views of several we had previously seen. The magnificent Pincombe Range was lit a brilliant red by the setting sun giving a spectacular backdrop to the first commercial crop of rice in the valley since about 1982.
Our home trip was via Ivanhoe Crossing where many people seemed intent on taking themselves out of the gene pool by offering themselves to the crocodiles by fishing mid stream (just past the ³Caution – Crocodile² sign). You just can’t tell some people can you?
Friday 30th. Valentine Springs Road, Pumphouse, Kingston Rest Farms and Card Creek.
Yellow Chat Island – Lake Argyle
It was already hot as we departed at 0730 for Valentine Springs. This open savannah woodland was home to a variety of birds and we were please to again see red-backed fairy-wrens and pied butcher birds as well as Australian magpies (not seen all that often in the Kununurra area), a lemon-bellied flycatcher and various others. After much discussion and checking and rechecking we were able to settle on the juvenile white-throated gerygone as the fairly common small yellow bird we were seeing at one stop.
At Old Station Billabong we saw quite a number of previously recorded species but again our hoped for Gouldian finches did not put in an appearance. We did however have great views of a mob of about 15 brolgas on the ground and in the air. On we went to the Pumphouse Restaurant where the food and service matched the wonderful location on the bank of Lake Kununurra. The building still houses the huge pumps which used to be required to lift the irrigation water into the main channel. However, since the completion of the Ord River Dam and the resultant formation of Lake Argyle the pumps have sat idle and water levels in Lake Kununurra have been kept high enough to allow gravity flow to the main farm areas.
Next we headed for Kingston Rest Farms which is a property now owned by Tropical Forestry Services and which is being converted to sandalwood plantations. After the 70km journey we arrived at the diversion dam and were able to appreciate the great beauty of the place (which had been used for several shots in the movie Australia) as well as appreciating a spectacular red-wing parrot, several honeyeaters, some rajah shell-ducks and a trip bird in a group of three grey teal. Next stop was the central storage dam where there were unfortunately few birds so we headed for Card Creek. Here we found a few more finches but again the Gouldians disappointed in what was really a last opportunity for us.
Back at the motel we gathered for our last supper and reminisced about what had been a hectic week. A total of over 135 species sighted as well as the opportunity to visit some spectacular parts of the Kimberley Region and the great camaraderie of the group indicated that it was a great week too. The various components came together like clockwork so well done Janene and congratulations to all participants.
Our Intrepid Group 2010
I have enjoyed working with you all and hope that some of you are able to experience more of the Kimberley in due course. Please feel free to contact me on my home email at email@example.com if you wish.
By Chris Done guiding for FTB