Friday, August 17, 2012

In search of the Dorothy Grasswren - Mt Isa - Bladensburg - Boodjamulla Trip Report

(Better late than never)

I remember many years ago reading Brigadier Hugh Officer's account of searching for the Dorothy Grasswren – a species that had only recently been rediscovered in the early 1970’s – it certainly stirred the imagination and daydreams of birds I thought I would never get to see. When mates Tim Dolby and Greg Oakley discussed a trip to Mt Isa, I was very keen. Over a number of months we put together plans and after receiving permission from the boss, booked some flights and a car. With Qantas flying daily to Mt Isa from Brisbane, return flights cost around $900. We hired an X-trail through Budget which was adquate for what we needed - cost around $1200 total for the week when extra km were factored in. The key species we were after no matter what were the two grasswrens, Carpentatrian and Kalkadoon which are not really found easily anywhere else - after that we had vague plans about heading to Bladensburg NP and Lawn Hill as time permitted.

Crimson Finch - Greg Oakley

Got up at god-awful o'clock for a 6 am flight to Brisbane and then on to Mt Isa. Having a window seat as we crossed the expanse of the Queensland outback I could see that most watercourses seemed to have at least a little water in them so was hopeful that conditions were good. As we flew into Mt Isa I looked rather hopefully out the window for a Kalkadoon Grasswren amongst the spinifex covered hills. My initial impression of Mt Isa reminded me quite a bit of Alice Springs and that it was certainly warmer than late autumn in Melbourne.

Double-barred Finch - Greg Oakley

Headed straight out to the famous Mica Creek site on the Diamantina Development Road to look for the Kalkadoon Grasswren despite it being the heat of the day. We worked up the creekline near the rusty car without much success - there was quite a bit of wind and it made listening for grasswrens difficult. We of course had brought no drinks so decided to head back to town to cool down a bit but upon returning to the creek ran into quite a hot spot of birds where we finally got the trip list kicking with birds like Red-winged Parrot, Grey-headed, Grey-front and Black-chinned Honeyeaters and a favorite of mine - a pair of Black-tailed Treecreeper.

Had some welcome refreshments in Mt Isa and then headed to the water tanks at the edge of town at the end of Pamela Road to look for Kalkadoons. On the way we saw my first ever Spotted Bowerbirds which turned out to be a common bird around town. We straight away heard grasswrens at the base of the first tank but they evaded us so we worked up the valley between the tanks occasionally getting excited by Spinifexbirds - this was a bird I really had to work for in Central Australia but here they were distracting from the main target - I still maintain they are the most boring bird in Australia. Reached the top of the gully and then we heard grasswrens back in the direction we had just came - after a few anxious moments we got onto a nice pair of Kalkadoon Grasswrens! First afternoon and one of the main targets out of the way. They went about their business and were not interested in any playback or pishing what so ever. The similarities with the Dusky from which they were split is quite evident and really not surprising as the Mt Isa region bares a strong resemblance to the MacDonnells near Alice. Checked in to the Moondarra Caravan Park and had a few quiet ales to celebrate...
Long-tailed Finch - Greg Oakley

With the expansion of the mining industry around Mt Isa the caravan parks are no longer tourist oriented as was hammered home to us around 4 am when all the miners got up to go to work.... On the return journey when we politely enquired about maybe finding a quieter place to camp we were politely told if we didnt like it to fuck off :-) It did mean we were on the road early and headed out towards Lake Moondarra which is a large manmade lake around 20 km out of Mt Isa. On the way there, there is a glorious large area of wetland with birds like Green Pygmy-goose, Jacanas and Whistling-ducks to remind us southerners that we weren't at the WTP. Finches were next on the agenda with some lovely Long-tails in amongst the more common Zebra's and Double-bars as well as the lovely Golden-backed race of the Black-chinned Honeyeater. At the lake itself we failed to track down some elusive mannikins disappearing into the scrub which were probably Pictorellas but a good compensation was a number of lovely Painted Finches - only my second sighting. While we wanted to continue to explore this area, there was a bigger prize on offer - we had second grasswren to find.

So we headed out to the famous McNamara Road site for the Carpentarian Grasswren - the habitat was looking fantastic and we passed quite a bit of promising looking habitat. We arrived at the famous cairn - shown above - and started searching. It was quite windy which made grasswren searching less than ideal. As we worked our way up a dry creekbed, Greg and Tim caught a sighting of one but I missed it... gutted! Continued to work the area but with no luck. We tried a number of likely spots and possibly heard grasswrens but were mostly just kicking Spinifexbirds out of the way. A couple of flushed Button-quail provided some excitement, the one I got bins on was a Little but another had rustier flanks.

Eventually we stopped for some lunch under the questionable shade of a spindly eucalypt around 2km south of the cairn site and plotted our next move. We decided to cover a lot more ground moving quickly and relying on our decent hearing to pick up grasswrens. After 40 minutes of walking and kicking more Spinifexbirds out of the way we heard unmistakable grasswren calls and quickly got onto a group of Carpentarian Grasswrens! My first binocular view of a male calling with head thrown back is one of my favourite birding moments! This is a bird that the field guides do not do justice. We spent quite a bit of time with this group which may have numbered up to 5 birds as Tim and Greg tried to get photos. On the way back to the car we flushed another grasswren - the birds were getting easy.
Carpentarian Grasswren - Greg Oakley

From McNamara Road we headed back through Mt Isa and headed out towards Cloncurry. We decided to camp at the Chinaman Creek Dam which was a lovely place with Purple-necked Rock wallabies hopping around the campsite. Here we met up with Tim Faulkner, Scott Ryan and John Weigel who were in the middle of a manic dash across the country and back ticking off as many birds as possible for John's Big Year. Was great to share some info with these guys as well as a couple of drinks. Check out for more info on John's odyssey.
The road between Cloncurry and Winton is rather flat and featureless aside from the odd Brolga and Bustard. Somewhere along this road we clocked up our 3,000,001th Black Kite. At Winton we checked out the local shit pits which have quite a bird list but was quite uneventful when we were there with just a couple of mouldy looking teal.

Bladensburg NP is a relatively short drive south of Winton on good roads that are obviously well used on the grey nomad route. As we entered the park there were large flocks of Zebra Finches wherever there was water - we spent some time looking through them but all we found were more Zebbies. Out in the open country the eremophila was flowering and had attracted good numbers of  Black Honeyeaters and Crimson Chats.  We stayed at the pleasant Bough Shed hole campsite which had some nice birds around including some very approachable Cloncurry Ringnecks.
Rose early to the coldest morning of the trip, I even slipped on a light fleece top as we packed up and headed out of the park, stopping to check out a few groups of finches along the way. A bonus was a pair of Ground Cuckoo-shrikes on the road out of the park, only my second sighting of this species, they did not stick around long however. As we left the park I certainly had the nagging feeling that one night certainly was not enough time to do Bladensburg justice. Lark Quarry is about 120 km south of Bladensburg on a pretty good dirt road through lightly stocked country which is probably in as good a condition right now as it has been in a long while. Emu, bustards and the odd raptor provided distraction until we arrived at the turnoff to Lark Quarry where we stared up hopefully at the radio tower in hope of the Grey Falcons which sometimes roost there. No falcons, but there was a nest which we later found out had been used by the Grey Falcons to raise a couple of chicks the previous year…. Getting closer! Our targets here were Hall’s Babbler and race “rowleyi” of the Striated Grasswren. We found the babblers quite quickly in mulga near the airstrip which I was pretty happy about as it was the last of the Aussie babblers I “needed” The grasswren proved to be more problematic as there was now quite a strong breeze which made listening for squeaks somewhat difficult. Eventually we admitted defeat here on the grasswren although I did get a brief look at the Rufous-crowned Emu-wren. We checked out the dinosaur stampede with a quick tour which was certainly worth the price of admission. The guide said he regularly sees Grey Falcon between Lark Quarry and the turnoff to Opalton so when we saw a pale falcon perched distantly in a tree we thought we were onto something but it turned out to just be another Brown. We ended up missing the turnoff to Opalton and by the time we realised it would have been another couple of hundred km on the day’s trip. Considering we needed to be in Cloncurry that evening it was decided that the grasswren will have to wait til next time – I expect it will be split next week sometime. The drive from Winton to Cloncurry was punctuated by many bustard, emu, brolga and some nice raptors like Spotted Harrier.

We stayed at the caravan park on the eastern edge of Cloncurry which just so happened to be right where trucks slow down to take the heavy vehicle bypass…. So all night was a constant procession of air brakes and rumbling engines that not even a few beers could blot out. Headed out early, north via The Bourke and Wills Roadhouse then west to Gregory Downs and Lawn Hill. We passed through vast areas of tropical savannah and flood plain with large flocks of Cockatiel, Budgies, Crimson Chats and the odd Black-necked Stork. We stopped at the Leichardt River which was a very nice spot, made difficult by the typical Queensland practice of blocking access to some of their most beautiful sites. Here I got my first Yellow-tinted Honeyeater which proved to be a common bird throughout this area.

Yellow-tinted Honeyeater - Greg Oakley

At a creek crossing on the way into Lawn Hill we found a brilliant little finch drinking spot, so we set up some chairs and watched a steady procession of Double-bars, Long-tails, Zebbies and eventually a lovely pair of Pictorella Mannikins which was a great new bird for all of us and gave Greg the full suite of Australian finches…. Celebrated by cracking open a beer while we watched still more birds come in – doves and Brown Quail. Eventually pulled ourselves away from this great site and booked what was probably the last site in the campground at Lawn Hill NP – the place was packed with grey nomads in various states of decomposition. There were some great birds in the campsite itself with Buff-sided Robins everywhere and a lovely pair of Northern Rosellas sitting up nicely. Decided to go straight away for a walk and worry about the tents later and was soon amazed by the tall trees in the oasis by the river. Climbed the Island stack and soon had great views of Sandstone Shrike-thrushes near the top – I had spent a fair bit of time looking for both this bird and the robin in the Northern Territory a couple of years back and here I was ticking both within minutes of arriving here. The Island Stack is worth climbing as you get a great view across the canopy where Great Bowerbirds fly around like fruit pigeons. Walking back towards the camp I had vague thoughts of leaving the Lilac-crowned Fairy-wren to “tick” tomorrow but the birds had other ideas as several wandered into my binocular view – even though they were all in eclipse plumage, they are still a great bird – nothing fairy about it at all.

Buff-sided Robin - Greg Oakley

Four ticks in a day and I thought the day couldn’t get any better, so I climbed the escarpment south of the campground to try and find a view of the sunset. Settling back on a rock, my attention was drawn to a grey raptor gliding across the campground – fumbling with the binoculars I had great views as the bird burst into fast falcon hunting flight then stooping not once but twice at tremendous speed. Detailed notes are available if anyone is interested – but I had my first Grey Falcon under the belt, fantastic bird! Amazingly there was full mobile reception from this point so I googled Tim D’s mobile and called him from the escarpment top to tell him to keep an eye skyward! Was quite amused to see a Brown Goshawk cruise through the canopy and give a cockie a love tap on the shoulder – which caused the cockatoo great indignation! Tim D cooked a great curry dinner as we sat back and had a few quiet ones and were serenaded by the resident Barking Owls who put on quite a show.

Sandstone Shrike-thrush - Greg Oakley
Up early, we climbed the same escarpment in the hope that the Grey Falcon would cruise by again but we had to settle for Sandstone Shrike-thrushes hopping around our feet while squadrons of Budgies zipped past and the first Channel-billed Cuckoos for the trip floated through the canopy below. Wandered onwards until we got to Indarri Falls – this really is a little slice of heaven and we jumped straight in for a swim which was perfect. Wandered up the gorge seeing more fairy-wrens and robins as well as Rock Ringtail scat amongst the fruiting figs – will have to come back with a spotlight sometime. Eventually wandered back to camp and headed to Adels Grove for a cool drink and then out to the finch drinking site again. More finches again including Crimson, Long-tailed and two more Pictorellas (probably the same pair) as well as the first Pheasant Coucal and White-throated Honeyeaters of the trip and a particularly out of place Black-necked Stork standing guard over a puddle the size of a dining table. That night we had a few beers and the set menu at Adels Grove (the choices were chops or chops) and were entertained by a pair of travelling minstrels.

The trip back to Mt Isa was a little hairy as the road wasn’t great and due to a flat tyre at Adels Grove we now had no spare. More Brolgas and Bustards were of interest but the highlight was a lovely Black-headed Python crossing the road. I was quite interested in visiting the Riversleigh D site but it was rather underwhelming – I gather the good stuff is probably sitting in museum storerooms somewhere. There were a couple of minor crossing of the Gregory River which may have stretched the terms of the hire car agreement somewhat – each of these were lovely oasis and probably would have yielded some good birds with more time.

Back in Mt Isa, against our better judgement we booked another night at the Moondarra caravan park – this time the price was only 1/3rd the first night and did what any self-respecting birders would do in the middle of the day – headed for the shit pits. Mt Isa Sewage Works do have a good birding reputation and while we didn’t see anything extraordinary there were the only Red-kneed Dotterels, Pink-eared Duck and Black-tailed Native-hens of the trip. Not quite sure what the deal is for birder access, but the gate was wide open and no one was around so we wandered in and checked out the ponds. We bounced out to the far side of Lake Moondarra on the vague hope of a Yellow Chat or a rare wader but it was the wrong season. This was a great wetland area that looked like it would be fantastic in summer. Highlights included good numbers of hobbies zipping around catching dragonflies all along the lake edge – sometimes coming within a few meters of us, Glossy Ibis and both Gull-billed and Caspian terns. As evening approached we went back to where we had seen Painted Finch earlier in the trip but they were not around, however we got great views of a Purple-necked Rock-wallaby watching us from its cliff top hideaway. Had a shower then out to taste Mt Isa nightlife where the beer is cheap and plentiful, must be how they keep the miners happy.

The last morning was spent cleaning the hire car and a quick trip out to Lake Moondarra where a mouldy looking Straw-necked Ibis gave us the last addition to the trip list. All in all we had a fantastic birding week with 169 species recorded of which 11 were ticks for me. My first glimpse of the Carpentarian Grasswren standing with its head thrown back, calling its heart out will long stick with me as one of my favourite birding memories. I will have to go back as I still didn’t get a glimpse of the Diamantina River… We drove around 2500 km with places like Lawn Hill, Bladensburg and Lake Moondarra stand outs – bird lists for most sites have been entered into Special thanks to Tim D and Greg for being great birding companions and putting up with me. Tim with his boundless knowledge of sites and locations and Greg for use of his bird photos. And finally thanks to Simone and Lucas for letting me go!! xx