Gulf of Carpentaria trip 2010

Australian Pratincole (Stiltia isabella)
Australian Pratincole (Stiltia isabella)

In August 2010 whilst at a planning meeting of my company I successfully volunteered as a surveyor’s assistant for a ten-day trip to the Gulf of Carpentaria. This was probably not due to any competence on my part but a lack of surveying staff and mapping-work in the office. Six sites in the Gulf area required small surveys to assist a larger project. We were required to set up base in Normanton, and travel to Karumba, Kowanyama, Burketown, Doomadgee and Gregory Downs. Having never visited the central and north-west of the state before I was very keen to try and incorporate some birding when the opportunity should arise.  The planned route from Brisbane to Normanton was approximately 2000 kms and took us 3 days due to the activation of an engine ‘warning-light’ and although we had no idea what it was telling us we managed to get it turned-off in Longreach (…it returned later and so we did the logical thing and ignored it!)

I’ve made a photo-album as a record of the trip which gives a general account of the drive up and back and so only intend to discuss the natural stuff that was seen on this blog.

From Brisbane to Winton the drive was fairly uneventful, although numbers of Black and Whistling Kites (Milvus migrans & Haliastur sphenurus) increased exponentially after Longreach. As the drive was rather boring I decided to educate my colleague Serge to become a birder and feel confident now that he can tell the difference between Whistling and Black Kite (we probably saw about ten thousand of each in the ten days of travel!)

Black Kite (Milvus migrans)
Black Kite (Milvus migrans)

Between Winton and Cloncurry we started to see some interesting species and near the Ayrshire Hills we saw approximately 50 Australian Bustard (Ardeotis australis) and began to see Australian Pratincole (Stiltia isabella). At the bleak town of Kynuna I spotted some Spinifex Pigeon (Geophaps plumifera) although they were far too nervous to allow close-approach (…and a photo!) the same couldn’t be said of a family of Brolga (Grus rubicunda) marching down the high street.

Brolga (Grus rubicunda)
Brolga (Grus rubicunda)

At Cloncurry the scenery is very different from the vast open plains and quite rocky and just outside the town of Quamby we stopped for a nature-break and a coffee and noticed that many of the bloodwoods were flowering with large clumps of blossom. I saw some lorikeets flying out of one and watched with dismay as they flew over the ‘horizon’, however as I turned around I spotted two flying straight into the tree next to where I was standing. To my delight I realised that they were Varied Lorikeets (Psitteuteles versicolor) a species that I had only seen briefly near Darwin twenty years before!

Cloncurry scenery
Cloncurry scenery
Bloodwood?
Bloodwood?

Varied Lorikeet (Psitteuteles versicolor)
Varied Lorikeet (Psitteuteles versicolor)

Buoyed by this success we continued on and then I’m fairly certain I saw a Grey Falcon (Falco hypoleucos) fly over the car, unfortunately it was heading fast in the direction that we had come and so I couldn’t verify it. We also had Little Eagle (Hieraaetus morphnoides) and Black-breasted Buzzard (Hamirostra melanosternon) in this area.

Arriving in Normanton late afternoon we checked into the Central Motel and I took a short walk around the wetlands to the west of the town and saw some Radjah Shelduck (Tadorna radjah) White-headed Stilt (Himantopus leucocephalus) and Black-fronted Plover (Elseyornis melanops). Returning I was nearly torn to pieces by three dogs being walked by a lady who had never seen another person walk on the track before!

Radjah Shelduck (Tadorna radjah)
Radjah Shelduck (Tadorna radjah)

I was very intrigued by an unusual tree which was plentiful around Normanton, I’m fairly sure that it is a Brachychiton species and think that it might be a Queensland Bottle Tree (B. rupestris) There didn’t seem to be any leaves, only flowers and green fruit similar to unripe passionfruit.

Mystery Tree - Brachychiton sp?
Mystery Tree - Brachychiton sp?
Black-faced Woodswallow (Artamus cinereus)
Black-faced Woodswallow (Artamus cinereus) & mystery tree

The following day (Wednesday) we commenced work at six-thirty am and set up our base near the Airport, birds of note were Red-winged Parrot (Aprosmictus erythropterus), Australian Hobby (Falco longipennis) and Blue-winged Kookaburra (Dacelo leachii).

Blue-winged Kookaburra (Dacelo leachii)
Blue-winged Kookaburra (Dacelo leachii)

Pheasant Coucal (Centropus phasianinus)
Pheasant Coucal (Centropus phasianinus)

Later in the day we travelled to Karumba, only 70 kms away! This is the only town in North-west Queensland which is directly on the Gulf and a magnet for the ‘Grey-nomad’ community,  who visit for the fishing. Before entering the town large flocks of Sarus Cranes (Grus antigone) (with some Brolgas) can be seen  and Red-tailed Black-Cockatoos (Calyptorhynchus banksii) were easily spotted in gardens.

Sarus Cranes in flight
Sarus Cranes (and Brolgas) in flight
Sarus Cranes (Grus antigone)
Sarus Cranes (Grus antigone)

Red-tailed Black Cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus banksii)
Red-tailed Black Cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus banksii)

After completing our work Serge allowed me a few minutes birding near the airport where I saw my first ‘lifers’ for the trip, Yellow-tinted and Red-throated Honeyeaters (Lichenostomus flavescens and Conopophila rufogularis). Also seen in the area were many White-winged Triller (Lalage tricolor) and Red-backed Fairywrens (Malurus melanocephalus).

Rufous-throated Honeyeater (Conopophila rufogularis)
Rufous-throated Honeyeater (Conopophila rufogularis)
Yellow-tinted Honeyeater (Lichenostomus flavescens)
Yellow-tinted Honeyeater (Lichenostomus flavescens)

The next day’s work was the most remote, we had to drive up the west coast of Cape York to the community of Kowanyama, this was a totally unsealed road from near Normanton and took around 5 hours. The drive was fairly uneventful and the work easy, sadly there wasn’t much of interest birding-wise however I did managed to get a butterfly ‘tick’ and managed to photograph one that had eluded me for a long-time back home in Brisbane.

Female Blue Argus (Junonia orithya)
Female Blue Argus (Junonia orithya)
Clearwing Swallowtail (Cressidda cressida)
Clearwing Swallowtail (Cressidda cressida)

The return trip in the dark was more interesting though still fairly quiet, we only saw a couple of snakes, a few wallabies and lots of  birds flying above the truck which I think were probably ‘Tyto’ Owls as we managed to get fairly close to one on the ground. I initially thought that this was a Masked Owl (Tyto novaehollandiae) from the stout legs and feet, however on consultation I believe that it is just an Eastern Barn Owl (Tyto javanica).

Eastern Barn Owl (Tyto javanica)
Eastern Barn Owl (Tyto javanica)

On Friday we travelled to Burketown along the Savannah Way, a 3.5-hour ride on another dirt-road. This was much less comfortable than the Kowanyamah one with far more potholes and wildlife encountered. However we saw many Australian Pratincole and a couple of Spotted Nightjar (Eurostopodus argus) on our return. At Burketown Airport I managed to get reasonable shots of one that had also eluded me, the Mistletoebird (Dicaeum hirundinaceum)

Mistletoebird (Dicaeum hirundinaceum)
Mistletoebird (Dicaeum hirundinaceum)

Anthill Scenery
Anthill Scenery

On the way back to Normanton we were amazed at the numbers of Agile Wallabies (Macropus agilis) on the road and Serge managed to miss most (…but not all!)  At dusk close to Burketown we saw several Flock Bronzewings (Phaps histrionica)

Agile Wallaby (Macropus agilis)
Agile Wallaby (Macropus agilis)

We repeated the route the next day (Normanton to Burketown) but had to travel an extra 100 kms to Doomadgee, which surprisingly was almost totally sealed with bitumen. Doomadgee was a very pleasant town and despite the time of day (lunch to late afternoon) birds were very evident, whilst working I heard a ‘myiagra’ flycatcher, saw lots of White-winged Trillers and Red-backed Fairywrens. A Blue-winged Kookaburra came close but not close enough for my camera. Several small flocks of ‘Rainbow-type’ Lorikeets flew around the town but I couldn’t see if they were Red-collared or the nominate -species (subspecies?) On leaving Doomadgee we drove up to the only submerged creek-crossing of the trip over the Gregory River near the Tiranna Roadhouse, this looked like prime habitat for Purple-crowned Fairywren (Malurus coronatus) and so I managed to talk Serge into stopping for a coffee-break. I started to make a ‘squeaking’ sound and was surprised when an adult-male Purple-crowned Fairywren hopped up onto a nearby dead-tree and began to sing, I was even more amazed when it allowed me to get some reasonable photographs showing it’s gorgeous colouration.

Purple-crowned Fairywren (Malurus coronatus)
Purple-crowned Fairywren (Malurus coronatus)
Purple-crowned Fairywren (Malurus coronatus)
Purple-crowned Fairywren (Malurus coronatus)

This was undoubtedly the highlight of my trip, and I really thought that I would struggle to see this threatened endemic species. If anyone is planning a trip to the area let me know and I will pass on details and coordinates of the location.

Sunday morning saw us heading to Gregory Downs, via the Burke & Wills Roadhouse on a sealed road. Gregory is a small community south of Burketown with an airfield and a pub, a roadside sign informs travelers not to make camp in the river-bed (visit my picasa album and see the response!)

Whilst Serge was checking a couple of Permanent Survey Marks (PSM’s) near the community I had a few minutes to do some birding and found a small tap run-off, spotted a Masked Finch (Poephila personata) drinking, there were also Crimson Finch (Neochmia phaeton) and Diamond Dove (Geopelia cuneata) here and a Black-breasted Buzzard came down and gave me the once-over.

Black-breasted Buzzard (Hamirostra melanosternon)
Black-breasted Buzzard (Hamirostra melanosternon)

Returning from Gregory we noticed a phenomenon that we had encountered on several occasions, large numbers of locusts were ‘swarming’ and Kites and other Birds of Prey were taking advantage of the feast.

Locust swarm
Locust swarm

Australian Pratincole (Stiltia isabella)
Australian Pratincole (Stiltia isabella)

The next day Monday, was our last working-one but Serge only had to do some checking at Karumba, so I was given a longer-leash and allowed to do some birding. My target bird was the White-breasted Whistler (Pachycephala lanoides) a mangrove-species, so I got a lift to the end of Riverview Drive and spent an hour trying in vain to find one. However, I did manage to see a species that I hadn’t encountered since I worked in Darwin, a Yellow White-eye (Zosterops lutea) and a couple of Honeyeaters, Yellow and White-gaped (Lichenostomus flava and unicolor) I also flushed three Australian Bustard.

Yellow Honeyeater (Lichenostomus flava)
Yellow Honeyeater (Lichenostomus flava)
White-gaped Honeyeater (Lichenostomus unicolor)
White-gaped Honeyeater (Lichenostomus unicolor)

After Serge had completed his work I asked if he was interested in taking a boat-ride on the Norman River aboard the ‘Ferryman’, the tour that I had read about on the Birding-Aus Mailing-List,  he agreed and we contacted Glenn and Allison Newton and fixed a trip for a two-hour session around the mangroves. On an earlier morning-trip Glenn said that had seen plenty of White-breasted Whistlers and also a pair of Mangrove Golden Whistler (Pachycephala melanura) and Arafura Fantail (Rhipidura dryas)

The Ferryman
The Ferryman

At one pm we set off across the Norman River and Glenn steered us into a small tributary where a White-breasted Whistler called, unfortunately this bird did not show but we were rewarded with views of Red-headed Honeyeater (Myzomela erythrocephala) and Mangrove Fantail (Rhipidura phasiana) (…another ‘lifer’)  We also saw Broad-billed Flycatcher (Myiagra ruficollis) and a family-party of Variegated Fairywren (Malurus lamberti)

Mangroves
Mangroves

Red-headed Myzomela (Myzomela erythrocephala)
Red-headed Myzomela (Myzomela erythrocephala)

Further along the mangroves we got successful when Glenn found another tributary and we all saw the male White-breasted Whistler, and a couple of females on the other bank feeding within photo-shot.

Female White-breasted Whistler (Pachycephala lanioides)
Female White-breasted Whistler (Pachycephala lanioides)
Variegated Fairywren (Malurus lamberti)
Variegated Fairywren (Malurus lamberti)
Broad-billed Flycatcher (Myiagra ruficollis)
Broad-billed Flycatcher (Myiagra ruficollis)

We then returned to Karumba and had a quick look in a tributary close to the Golf-course, we were unsuccessful with the Mangrove Golden Whistler but had great views of  a ‘sulky’ White-bellied Sea-Eagle (….well,that’s what Allison claimed!) and to cap it off we realised that we were being watched by a 12-foot Saltwater Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus)!

White-bellied Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster)
White-bellied Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster)

Saltwater Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus)
Saltwater Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus)

This was really the end of birding for the trip, we returned to Brisbane the following day just as a large front was coming through the state. From Normanton to the Burke and Wills Roadhouse the temperature dropped from 23 to 14°C and many Queensland towns had their wettest August day for many years. I hope this has been useful to anyone planning a trip to this area, I will certainly be going back to study the area properly.

List of Species Seen

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Tom Tarrant is a wildlife enthusiast with a passion for photography, video and (open-source) computing.

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