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A Report from

Birding Western Queensland, Australia, May 17 to May 25 2007,


Duan Biggs (DB), Ben Blewitt (BB) and Louis Simon (LS)


We set off on Operation Grasswren to attempt what we understood from all available sources was the near impossible – to find 4 Grasswren species in eight days and pick up as many other inland Australia birds  as we could along the way. BB who runs the Cairns-based Cassowary tours was at the wheel of his superb Toyota Landcruiser GXL for the trip.

Cairns/Townsville to Hughenden, Mount Isa, McNamara Road, Boolia, Big Red, Birdsville Track, Windorah, Longreach, Winton and Bladensberg National Park, return to Hughenden and Cairns/Townsville.

Useful references and trip reports:

Thomas & Thomas, The Complete Guide to Finding the Birds of Australia
Lloyd Nielsen, Birding Australia
Jennifer Spry, Great Grasswren trip Sept 06, & Birdsville Eyrean Grasswrens, Birding Aus Archives
Bill Ramsay, Directions to Grey Grasswren Site, Birding Aus Archives
Bob Forsyth, Birding Site Directions NW Qld, Birding Aus Archives & Birds Qld Web Page
Geoff Walker, Bladensburg National Park, Birding Aus Archives.

Notes on road conditions: Road conditions throughout were very good. DB felt that drivers with experience in taking sedan cars on gravel roads should find it easy going although they need to be wary of some areas where the ruts in the track need to be carefully negotiated with a low clearance vehicle. The main problem would be if there has been substantial rain in which case parts of the road will not be passable without 4X4.

GPS reference notes: GPS points were recorded using the WGS84 datum and are given in degrees, minutes and decimals of minutes. The GPS codes are included in this trip report for the purpose of our own references.

Day 1 – Cairns/Townsville to Hughenden to Cloncurry area

Our first stop was the Cloncurry sewage works. Here we had Little Corella, Grey Teal, Hardhead and Blackfronted Dotterel. If one has to overnight in Cloncurry the Leichardt Hotel looks like the best spot, although we pushed onto the Clem Walton Reserve and campsite. We stopped at Chinaman Creek Dam just west of Cloncurry on the way to our campsite. Here we had Yellow-rumped Thornbill, Great Crested Grebe, Brolga, Australian Pelican and Restless Flycatcher

Day 2 – Clem Walton, Mount Isa and McNamara road

A morning walk around the Clem Walton Park riverine vegetation produced White-plumed Honeyeater, Nankeen Night Heron, Little Pied Cormorant, Great Cormorant, Spotted Bowerbird, Restless Flycatcher, Varied Lorikeet, Australasian Grebe and Rufous Whistler. On the little hill from the campsite to the turnoff to the nearby Corella dam a flowering Eucalypt produced Black-chinned and Grey-headed Honeyeater. At Corella Dam we had Grey-crowned Babbler, Little Egret, Caspian Tern and Brolga. We headed into Mount Isa to the reservoir at the end of Pamela street. We parked at the gate and walked in about 200m, passing a big concrete reservoir on the right and a viewpoint over town on the left. We stopped about 100m up the road from the reservoir and faced a gully and outcrop on the left. A pair of KALKADOON GRASSWREN were calling as we stopped and responded aggressively to playback at this site. We moved onto the Mount Isa sewage treatment farm accessed off of Commercial road. Here we saw Black-tailed Native Hen, Australian Reed Warbler, Hoary-headed Grebe, Pink-eared Duck, Wood Sandpiper, Black-faced Woodswallow (one of the most common birds in interior Queensland on our trip), Little Corella, White-necked Heron White-faced Heron and Plumed Whistling Duck. We left Mount Isa and started making our way to the different Carpentarian Grasswren sites. BB assured us that this would be no easy task as he had spent 3 full days searching for it with no success in this area. Justin Perry, a colleague of DBs from Townsville had done research on Carpentarian Grasswrens and based on his analysis of trip reports of past birding trips and his own field observations he suggested that people tend to either see the bird in the first two or three hours at a site, or it takes them days or they don’t see it at all. Based on this information we decided to try the various sites indicated in trip reports for not more than an hour before moving onto the next site. Our first stop was about 25km out of Mount Isa on the road to Darwin. We searched the plain below the Microwave tower which is meant to be a site for the species. The hilltop above the plain is meant to be a stakeout for Kalkadoon Grasswren. We had no luck here in 30 minutes of searching. Our next stop was the Truck rest stop just after the microwave tower. Here we had the Grey-fronted Honeyeater but no Grasswrens in 40 minutes of searching. The turn off to the legendary McNamaras Road is 64.1km from Mount Isa. There is a new sign at this turn off indicating the Lady Anne’s Copper Project. We tried various sites along this road based on Birding Aus listserver trip reports accessed through Birding Aus archives. 3km down this road walking to the left we had Redbrowed and Striated Pardalote. At the 3.8km site (parking spot at 20 18.716 S; 139 08.338 E where there is a pull-over spot on the left) we struck gold by following a group of Variegated Fairy-wrens which led us to stumble on a group of 2 to 4 CARPENTARIAN GRASSWRENS after about 30 minutes at the site. We all had good brief views of the birds, although they are very skittish. We returned the next day and they were still there but we only had poor flight views. The GPS coordinates for the site are: 20 18.710 S and 139 08.455 E. The easiest way to find this site is probably to walk down the road to the creek from the parking spot. Walk upstream about 40 to 60m on the parking spot of the main creek bed. About 400m from the road there is a patch clumps of Spinifex and open pebbly ground in between. There is a large dead tree just where the slope flattens out. At this site we also recorded Zebra Finch (another bird that is amazingly common in the Queensland interior), Spinifex Pigeon, Little Buttonquail and the ubiquitous and widespread Weebill. At the 6.8km site (BB had recorded Spinifexbird here before) we walked into the left. This site is across from a Eucalypt tree with a big blue 6 spray-painted onto its trunk. Tramping about here we located 3 Black-tailed Treecreepers, 1 Diamond Dove and a very brief flight view of Spinifexbird. We also flushed another Little Buttonquail.  According to Justin Perry’s research, the majority of the sighting of Carpentarian Grasswren over the past 5 years have been around the 6.8km site. At the 7.8km site lies the famous cairn (small pile of rocks at the right hand side of the road). There is a small track leading in here which leads to a open bare patch next to a stream where we camped for the night. We walked for 1 km to the north-west of the campsite in the late afternoon and returned along a stream. On the walk we recorded Little Buttonquail, Grey-headed Honeyeater and Grey-fronted Honeyeater.

Day 3 – Mount Isa to Boolia

A morning birding session along the McNamara track added Budgerigar to our list as well as Hooded Robin. Our first stop after refuelling and shopping at Mount Isa was the Mica creek site. The site is on the road to Boolia, 10.4km from the t-junction at 23rd avenue from the centre of Mout Isa. The creek is not signposted but it is a sizeable creek with a pile of wrecked rusty cars. We drove in past the pile of wrecked vehicles and parked near a smaller creek coming in from the north. There is another single vehicle wreck near this parking site. We walked up the creek where BB had found Painted Finch and Little Woodswallow before. About 200m up the creek has rocky slopes on either side. On the left hand lower slope between some bigger rocks and boulders we found another group of KALKADOON GRASSWRENS that were responsive to playback.  Our next stop was Sybella Creek 6.9km south of Mica Creek. We walked up the creek and found a pair of Painted Finches about 500m from the parking spot. Travelling south from Sybella Creek to Boolia we encountered bigger and more flocks of Budgerigars as well as Cockatiels. Both species seem to be common in outback Queensland. We also started seeing more of another common outback bird, the Singing Honeyeater. We camped at the pleasant campground in the remarkably uneventful town of Boolia.

Day 4 – Boolia to Birdsville and Big Red

6km south of Boolia 2 White-backed Swallows crossed the road in front of us. We also recorded White-backed Swallow flying over the dunes near Big Red and on the road from Birdsville to Windorah. 30km south of Boolia we had Australian Bustard and Singing Bush Lark. At the first patch of gravel road about 50km south of Boolia there seemed to have been recent rainfall and there was quite a lot of greenery on the side of the road. Here we saw Spotted Harrier, a large group of Masked Woodswallows, White-browed Woodswallows and White-winged Fairy-wrens. Also present were Australian Pipit, a pair of Crimson Chat, a group of 18 Banded Lapwings and 13 Australian Bustards. South of Boolia we started having regular sightings of White-winged Triller and Emu’s seem to be more common. 77km south of Boolia we located our first pair of Gibberbirds, a group of 20 to 30 Australian Pratincoles and 2 more Banded Lapwings. The GPS reference for the site is: 23 26.308 S and 139.37.376 E. 160km south of Boolia (GPS GBPAN 24 07.299 S; 139.32.710 E)the recent rain had a led to the filling of a series of pans. Here we were treated to a spectacle of 15 Red-necked Avocets, over 2000 Straw-necked Ibis, 20 Wood Duck, 35 Pink-eared Ducks, Plumed Whistling Duck, Swamp Harrier, Whistling Kite, Glossy Ibis and Brolga. The pans next to the town of Bedouri had over 5000 Straw-necked Ibis as well as some White Ibis. A big grassy plain 327km south of Boolia delivered our first pair of aerial Black Falcon, after having stopped for tens of dark-looking Brown Falcons that we had seen en route. In the bustling town of Birdsville we turned west towards Big Red. About 25km from Birdsville we stopped at a big red dune with a large tree on the right where the road passes through the dune (GPS EGW1 25 55.515 S and 139 07.821 E). Two thirds of the way between this spot and a side track which crosses the same dune we located a pair of EYREAN GRASSWRENS. It took an hour or so before we all had good views. White-winged Fairy-wren was very common at this site and as we continued southwards down the Birdsville track. We saw a few different pairs of White-backed Swallow in this area. We camped at a superb site where the side-track passes over the crest of a dune (GPS EYRGCS 25 55.946 S; 139.08.002 E). 

Day 5 Big Red and down the Birdsville track

After clearing up our camp we travelled onto Big Red (essentially the dune where the road becomes a strictly 4x4 track. In the valley just before Big Red, where there are numerous signs indicating Simpson Desert National Park we were very fortunate to have brief but good views of a single GREY FALCON (GPS GFALC1 25 54.012 S; 39 03.808E). On the way back to Birdsville from Big Red we found our first group of Orange Chat which were rather abundant on the Birdsville track and the Birdsville – Windorah road. Also seen between Big Red and Birdsville was Little Eagle, flocks of Little Crow and Australian Raven. 43.7km south of Birdsville down the Birdsville track we found our only group of surprisingly skittish Banded Whiteface among a group of Zebra Finches. Approximately 90km south of Birdsville we got to the famous Goyder Lagoon site. A Birding Aus report from late 2006 indicated 26 39.165 S and 139 37.017 E as a good parking spot to walk into the lignum for Grey Grasswren. At this parking site we first walked East where we had Spotted Harrier among typical Birdsville track birds such as Orange Chat, White-winged Fairy-wren and of course the colourful Zebra Finch. There seemed to be at least 2 Spotted Harriers hawking the skies above the lagoon. After an hour or two’s searching we found the GREY GRASSWRENS exactly as reported by Bill Ramsay in the Birding Aus trip report from late 2006 to the west of the road. The closest point on the road to where the Grasswrens are is 26 38.799 S; 139 37.045 E (at a stream crossing). We found what we suspected were two pairs of Grey Grasswrens moving around in the taller lignum next to the stream which at the time of our visit contained an almost continuous pool of water. If you walk up the stream from the road for about 300m to where the thicker streamside lignum starts and walk up and down that area you should be able to pick up on the birds. The GPS references for the area where the Grasswrens can be seen are 26 38.800 S and 139 36.818 E (the eastern end of the Grasswren territory closest to the road) and 26 38.825 S and 139 36.700E (the western end). Although we located the Grasswrens within an hour of searching it took us 3 to 4 hours (including a return in the early morning) before all three of us had really good views. Also seen in the area was Australian Reed Warbler and a pair of Horsfield’s Bronze Cuckoo. Another major highlight were the groups of FLOCK BRONZEWING that were flying over and landing about 800m away in the late afternoon and early morning. By tracking them to where they had landed we had superb perched views in addition to the great flight views we had already. We continued about 30km south of Goyder Lagoon in the hope of finding a group of Inland Dotterels and with luck Letter-winged Kite, as because of the recent rain, conditions were good. 101.3 km south of Birdsville we found 4 Red-necked Avocets in flooded pans together with more Pink-eared Ducks. We returned northwards after dark to camp on the dune about 2 kilometres south of the Grey Grasswren site. 

Day 6 –Goyder Lagoon to east of Windorah

After more Grey Grasswren viewing we headed back up to Birdsville where we enjoyed a top class lunch at the charismatic Birdsville hotel. From here we headed back down towards the Birdsville track for 3.3km where we turned left for Betoota and Windorah. The marshy area between Birdsville town and the turn-off looked very good and although we saw nothing of special interest there – Yellow Chat may be a possibility. 5.2km from the Betoota turn-off a flooded pond delivered 6 Red-necked Avocets. A 6.3km pond provided further looks at Pink-eared Duck and a riverside stop at the 80km mark produced Spiny-cheeked Honeyeater. A slender looking very white bird on the horizon at the 100km mark caused great excitement at first, and we were all surprised that it turned out to be a Gull-billed Tern which had probably moved into the area because of all the rain and the large pans that had filled up. Due to all the rain the flies were in their thousands which made birding a little more difficult. BB did however get a very brief view of a bird that may have been a Plains-Wanderer disappearing into a bush. A stop at 118km from the Betoota/Windorah turn-off from the Birdsville track road we encountered an interesting mixed flock of Cockatiel and Little Corella. At 119km we had 4 more Gull-billed Terns and

Rufous Songlark. We continued driving into the darkness and in a grassy area between Betoota and Windorah we had Spotted Nightjar and more Banded Lapwings. We made a late night fuel stop in Windorah and grabbed a quick drink at the friendly Windorah pub. We continued south-eastwards towards Quilpie and camped at the 84km East of Windorah site described in Thomas and Thomas’s guide to finding birds in Australia.

Day 7 – Mulga east of Windorah and to Longreach

Our campsite was at 25 43. 259 S and 143 19.516 E (SLBTB1) underneath the powerlines described in Thomas and Thomas. The area seemed quite over-grazed and degraded and there was no hint of any grass cover. Our first surprise find was a group of Slaty-backed Thornbills not far from the campsite. Groups of Slaty-backed Thornbills were found at a number sites away from the taller and denser streamside vegetation. We took a two hour stroll south of the main road, focussing on taller streamside vegetation in the hope of Hall’s Babbler and Bourke’s Parrot as described in Thomas and Thomas but found neither. We did manage to pick up on White-browed Treecreeper which we heard calling in some taller mulga just south of the main road, about 400m from our campsite. The GPS reference for the treecreeper site is 25 43.364 S and 143 19.147 E (WBTC2). Our initial attempts at calling them in in the early morning failed. A mid-morning intensive transect through the area they were calling from led to great sightings as they came closer to a call played very softly once they had been located. Other birds seen around the 84km E of Windorah site included Hooded and Red-capped Robin, Inland Thornbill, Australian Ringneck, Grey Shrike Thrush and Crested Bellbird. We continued towards Quilpie for 20km in the hope of finding Hall’s Babbler and Bourke’s Parrot but to no avail. We did locate a group of Chestnut-crowned Babblers though. We headed back towards Windorah but took the short-cut to Jundah that goes through Welford National Park on route to Longreach. Common Bronzewing was seen on this stretch. Our day ended with a single Black Falcon flying overhead as we entered Longreach. We camped among 200

+ other campers and caravaners (mainly retired couples or grey nomads as they are called in Australia). We enjoyed the beer and the State of Origin Rugby League game between New South Wales and Queensland at the RSL Club in Longreach.

Day 8 – Longreach to Bladensberg National Park, near Winton

After breakfasting and refuelling in Longreach we travelled north to Winton, the home of Australia’s unofficial national anthem, Waltzing Matilda. A visit to the Winton sewage works proved fruitless and reports of Little Grassbird and possible Yellow Chats seemed impossible as there was no fringing vegetation. Just south of Winton lies the little-known Bladensburg National Park. Spinifex Pigeons wander around the streamside campsite in the park. After setting up camp, admiring the Spinifex Pigeons and LS admiring the local Willie Wagtails we hit the main birding hotspot in the park, near the Skull Hole. Just before the parking spot for the Skull Hole there is a road that veers off to the right, with a sign, private road. 2.5km down this road it crosses a dry stream (GPS BLBP2 22 34.537 S; 143 00.762 E). Here we had Red-browed Pardalote and Apostlebird. 4.8km (GPS BLBP3 22 35.510 S; 143 01.240 E) beyond the private road sign DB heard a very faint call from the spinifex. After some further stop and start searching for 30 minutes up the slope among the spinifex we located and had questar views of a group of 3 to 4 Rufous-crowned Emu Wrens. The Emu Wrens were between halfway and two thirds of the way up the slope just before it became really steep (GPS 22 35.535 S; 143 01.355 E). After relishing close up views of both the male and the female we continued on down the road. Here we had Hooded Robin, Varied Sitella and good looks at another common outback bird, the Wedge-tailed Eagle.  A dam near the end of the private road produced Grey-crowned Babbler and Common Bronzewing.

Day 9 – Bladensberg National Park and return home

We packed up camp bright and early and headed for the Rufous-crowned Emu Wren and Spinifexbird site mentioned in Birding Aus trip reports dating from 2000 and 2003. We parked 2.7 to 2.8km beyond the Private road sign near Skull hole and walked along the fence to the hill on the right through thick spinifex. We had at least two Spinifexbirds about 400m from where we parked (GPS SPFBD1 22 34.526 S; 143 00.556 E) . Getting good views of this elusive and shy bird proved really tough and even after 2 to 3 hours of tramping though prickly spinifex, only BB and LS had good views. Rufous-crowned Emu Wrens were common in this area and we had three to four groups of males and females walking to the left away from the fence along the footslopes of the hill and back to the parking spot. The GPS references for our sightings are (RCEW2 22 34.624 S; 143 00.398 E; RCEW3 22 34.628 S; 143 00.438 E). The area also produced Singing Honeyeater, Hooded Robin and Spiny-cheeked Honeyeater. We returned to Hughenden where DB caught a bus back to Townsville and BB and LS drove to the Atherton Tablelands and Cairns.


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