The Macquarie Marshes was the destination and western birds the goal. And what better way to introduce the Follow that Bird crew to western birds than a walk along the Macquarie just outside the western gateway town of Dubbo. Rufous Songlarks flew from exposed branch to exposed branch, their bodies seemingly about to burst with rich birdsong. Little Friarbirds abounded while the occasional Noisy Frirbird afforded an opportunity to appreciate the difference while exquisitely coloured Eastern Rosella and Red-rumped Parrots had people commenting that the birds seemed brighter in the west.
The next morning a short pre-breakfast walk along the Macquarie River in Dubbo itself yielded the first Peaceful Dove of the week. Heading further west our first stop was a cowal (ephemeral wetland) near Narromine. While the hoped for Magpie Geese didn't eventuate this was more than compensated by a magnificent Peregrine Falcon devouring what people thought was a Cockatiel. Certainly the Cockatiel flying around at the time appeared more than usually nervous. It was at this point that we became aware of Diana's fascination with meat-eating birds! Onto the Narromine sewage treatment works where the ponds were graced with the usual assortment of duck - Pink-eared Duck, Musk Duck and a pair of Plumed Whistle-duck being noteworthy. Brown Songlarks, although distant in the adjacent paddock, afforded people with an appreciation of how the call differed from its Rufous relative.
Next stop, and morning tea, was Warren. More Little Friarbirds, obliging White-winged Chough and, for some, nice views of our first Red-winged Parrot. The marshes were our destination and off we went for a rendezvous with lunch at Willie Retreat. Along the way we encountered our much overdue Emu while Black Kites were a frequent sight along the road north.
Well and truly lunched we set of on an exploratory tour of the marshes. Gibson's Way cuts right across the marshes allowing one to examine a cross section of country interspersed with channels normally creating a mosaic of wet and dry. The drought had resulted in considerable contraction of the marshes however the Monkeygar Creek system was nicely flooded thanks to good August rains and follow-up "environmental releases" from Burrendong Dam.
The birds were thankful of the water and plenty of ibis, spoonbill and herons were present. People marvelled at the iridescent gloss of the Glossy Ibis (not really a black bird at all!) and the colour of a pair of extremely cooperative Australian Shelduck while others strained to convince themselves that the fuzzy grey blob in the telescope really was a Brolga. We were later to see two Brolga flying high overhead, all gangly legs and trumpeting calls, but getting close-up views of these birds eluded us.
Leaving the Monkeygar behind the marshes the country changed from a sea of green to a more parched landscape punctuated with splashes of colour as Blue Bonnets, Australian Ringnecks and Red-rumped Parrots were flushed from the roadside. The usually wet system of the Terrigal Creek was completely dry. The bird observation platform looking out onto brown earth and stark dead trees, the display panel illustrating wetland birds completely out of sync with the vista in front of us. However, in place of wetland birds we were treated to a stunningly beautiful male Variegated Fairy-wren.
The next day we were treated to more water and woodland birds as we headed north along the Corinda Road. Highlights here included White-winged Fairy-wren lurking in the saltbush with the occasional extroverted male perched high on top, resplendent in the morning sun. Much anticipated Crimson Chats proved elusive (we were to have fleeting views later) although a pair of White-fronted Chat were gratefully accepted as a consolation prize. A pair of rather vocal White-bellied Cuckoo-shrike proved to be nesting while a female Rufous Songlark voiced her displeasure at Diana parking the bus adjacent her nest.
That afternoon we met the NPWS Discovery Ranger who took the expectant, and somewhat apprehensive group for an adventure into the wilds of the "real" marshes. The flooded channels and shallowly flooded Red Gum woodlands of the northern marshes made for interesting trekking which was compensated by the colour and form of the flowering wetland plants.
It was with some regret that we prepared to depart Willie Retreat on the Friday morning. Close encounters with Emu and goats will not be forgotten quickly. Willie also proved to be a haven for birds with White-winged Trillers (what's that black & white bird?) and White-browed Woodswallows particularly evident, both observed nesting at close quarters. Budgerigars also delighted, clambering over seeding plants and "running" across the bare ground.
Leaving the marshes behind we headed east, stopping briefly in the still very much drought affected Sandgate State Forest for morning tea and Gulargambone for lunch. Gilgandra Flora Reserve promised much and after a promising start with honeyeaters feasting on the flower spikes of the Grasstrees, cooperative Buff-rumped Thornbills and fleeting views of furtive Speckled Warblers the birds dried up. Not to worry, the early arrival at our motel in Gilgandra was much welcomed by all as the previous few days had been filled with birds and the concentration levels were starting to fall.
The next morning, with all revitalised by a good nights sleep, we set off for our last pre-dawn walk, this time along the Castlereagh River. A walk punctuated by excellent views of many birds previously seen fleetingly : Blue-faced Honeyeaters, Yellow-throated Miners, a Western Gerygone in fine voice, Cockatiel, Galahs lining their nest hollow with green eucalyptus leaves and exquisite Red-capped Robins.
My last stop before leaving the group was another Castlereagh town, Mendooran. A pair of Dollarbirds put on a great show for us, sitting on branch together allowing all to appreciate the browns, greens and purples of their plumage and bright red bills and legs. "I thought they were all-black birds", someone remarked.
The bus pulled away delivering everyone back to Sydney, all well pleased that they had finally visited the mythical Macquarie Marshes, off the well-travelled highways but well worth the detour. The west had not disappointed with 123 species recorded during the Dubbo to Mendooran section of the trip with quite a few more observed on the legs to and from Sydney.