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Treepol

Way out west : Winton, Windorah and the big wet

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Treepol
Posted (edited)

 

This year I booked a birding safari to the Channel Country in southwest Queensland with David ‘Chook’ Crawford of Close-up Birding Adventures. Deposits were paid before Christmas and I was both sad and amazed when not one, but two devastating floods occurred along coastal Queensland during February and March. Whilst the 6 year drought in outback Queensland has been broken, almost 500,000 cattle died in the February 2019 floods and re-stocking was well underway during May-June. These floodwaters moved inland and turned the desert from brown to green so inadvertently this turned out to be a special time to visit the Channel Country in a rare green season.  What started as a birding trip morphed slightly into a quest for signs of the legendary outback of yesteryear, evidence of which still exists along the dusty roads, in isolated pubs and country towns of the Channel Country with names like Boulia, Bedourie, Birdsville and Windorah.

 

The Channel Country is home to several important endemics such as Rufous-crowned Emu-wren, Striated Grassbird and Eyrean Grasswren. The trip delivered some really flashy birds such as this Splendid Fairywren and some shy rarities like the Little Button-quail.

 

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The focus of the trip was birding with very few other wildlife sightings. Let’s start with some basic geography and a dollop of history.
 

The Channel Country is a unique region of Australia which covers 25% of the state of Queensland and extends into South Australia, New South Wales and the Northern Territory. Town populations decreased the further west we travelled - Longreach has a population of 3,000, Winton about 1,200, Boulia 300, Bedourie 142, Birdsville 115 and Windorah 83. The population increases by up to 7,000 in August-September when annual horse races at Bedourie, Birdsville and Betoota draw visitors from around the country. 

 

The Channel Country is a desert that floods, where the eco-system relies on a boom and bust flood cycle. The region is named for the water channels that criss-cross the flat plains occasionally filling rivers, billabongs and lakes.
 

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Water is carried from monsoons and storms in north Queensland through the channels south towards the Lake Eyre basin. Most years, any rain or floodwater is absorbed by the thirsty plains, however this year floodwater is creeping south down the Diamantina, Georgina and Warburton Rivers and has the potential to fill far away Lake Eyre, Australia’s largest lake with an area of 9,500 sq. km. which last filled in 1974.  This year the first water reached Lake Eyre in March and in April the Lake Eyre Yacht Club (!) held its first regatta in 3 years. The lady at the Birdsville Information Centre said that the 2019 flood could reach levels last seen in 1974. Its hard to explain the impact of water in the Channel Country and how unique the 2019 green season turned out to be, however this photo shows the vegetation that flourishes in the wake of the floods, compared to the dry, brown desert above the flood level.
 

 

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As the waters fill the channels and flow through the region this natural but irregular inundation precipitates a frenzy of bird breeding and a wave of greenery engulfs the desert. Some areas received up to 30 mm of rain this year, yet almost all of the grass and greenery is the result of a ‘dry flood’ which means that there is floodwater but little rain. Whilst the 6 year drought in outback Queensland has been broken, almost 500,000 cattle died in the February 2019 floods and re-stocking was well underway during May-June. The grasses and clover that thrive in the wake of the floodwaters, full dams and a warm climate provide some of the best cattle fattening land in the world. This year, rich grassland around Cooper Creek is prime grazing for beef cattle.

 

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We saw evidence of a lot of cattle movement – these beasts were being walked from one station to another and the road trains were transporting cattle to fatten on the lush herbage.
 

 

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Chook has been running this tour for 7 years and he said that the differences between this tour and the earlier ones are:


 

·         Everything is green

·         There are more juvenile birds

·         Water is lying and flowing where he hasn’t seen water before

·         Some birds are not in their usual spots

·         Birds are being seen where he hasn’t seen that species before

 

 

The Channel Country has a rich indigenous history first discovered by early explorers, cameleers and pastoralists.  Aboriginal tribes have lived in the Channel Country for 20,000 years, trading ochre and shells between inland and coastal regions.  European explorers followed the inland waterways and aboriginal trade routes through the Channel Country – Charles Sturt in 1844-46 to disprove the existence of an inland sea and the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition of 1860-61 that attempted the first north-south trans-continental expedition from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Pastoralists such as the Durack family followed the explorers, claiming the rich grazing land around the Diamantina River and Cooper Creek whilst Sidney Kidman founded Australia’s largest cattle company in 1899. The Kidman Company reportedly owned 1.5% of Australia’s land mass in 2009.

 

Afghan cameleers played an important role in opening up the Channel Country from 1858 onwards, supporting exploration, communication and settlement in a dry region unsuitable for horses. A sculpture at Birdsville commemorates their contribution to the development of the Channel Country.

 

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Edited by Treepol

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Soukous

terrific @Treepol, I adore the outback and travelling it is one of my great pleasures.

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Treepol

@Soukous Me too!

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Kitsafari

Im glad to hear the long drought in Queensland  has been broken finally but its dreadful that the  farmers lost so many cattle.

 Love your title and the towns’names are charming.

 

riding along with you on this TR....

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shazdwn

Tuning in for more :)

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Treepol

Thanks for riding along @Kitsafariand @shazdwn

 

Day 1

 

The Channel Country is an isolated part of Australia. Total flying time from Devonport to Longreach was 5 hours with an overnight in Melbourne as this flight between 2 regional centres can't be completed in a day. The flight to Brisbane was very pleasant as was the 2 hour stopover before boarding the Longreach flight.

 

Between Brisbane and Longreach the usually brown land is now various shades of green and many waterholes are brimming with fresh water.

 

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Our guide, David (Chook) Crawford collected 7 of us from the airport - the 8th member of our group drove from Sydney. Longreach has a population of 3,000 people and is located 1,200 kms northwest of Brisbane. It is named for the “long reach” of the Thomson River which flows nearby and is an important rural service centre, famous for the Stockman’s Hall of Fame and the Qantas Outback Founder’s Museums.

 

The first birds of the trip are spotted within 5 minutes of arrival - a Crested Pigeon perched high on a wire and Apostlebirds fossicking along the roadside. The streets are named for bird species and walking to dinner we saw Crane, Wonga and Duck streets, surely a good omen for a birding safari.

 

Dinner tonight is at the local RSL (Returned Services League) club, branches of which are found in many Australian towns. This Australian institution was formed in 1916 by soldiers returning from the war to preserve the spirit of mateship forged during war, honour the fallen and provide assistance to returned servicemen. Larger branches provide meals and usually have honour rolls and sometimes collections of local military history. At 6.30 a recording of the Last Post and Reveille accompanied by a photo montage had us on our feet to honour the fallen.

 

On the way back to the hotel we saw a fuel truck topping up the local BP service station and we stopped to talk to the driver who told us that the truck cost $500,000 and carried loads throughout Queensland and the Northern Territory. Tomorrow we have a 7.25 pickup and a 175 km drive to Winton.

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Treepol

Day 2

 

Chook collected us at 7.25 as planned and while we waited we watched a Crested Pigeon waiting for sun-up.

 

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Our first stop is the Longreach sewage ponds which were really jumping with some stunning birds - Plum-headed finch,

 

 

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Red-backed Kingfisher, White-plumed Honeyeaters and the beautiful Variegated Fairy Wren. Less illustrious birds included Australasian Grebes, Hardheads and Pacific Black Ducks. A pair of Spinifex Pigeons walked warily in front of us whilst many turtles peered from the green depths.
 

 

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Further along the road to Winton we saw Australian Pipit

 

 

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and wild emus, whilst Fairy Martins,

 

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Zebra Finches

 

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and the first budgerigars of the trip congregated at an outback waterhole watched over by a pair of nesting Whistling Kites. A Golden Orb spider is spotted on the walk back to the car.

 

 

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We ate lunch at the Winton Showgrounds where BlazeAid volunteers are camped out providing assistance to flood victims, one guy told us he had been there for 10 weeks. BlazeAid was founded to provide help for bushfire victims, however their remit now includes all natural disasters.

 

 

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The local galahs shelter from the sun in the grandstand but scattered when a Nankeen Kestrel flew in with lunch.

 

 

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Continuing the theme of outback sewage ponds we visited both the original and new ponds at Winton.  Magpie Larks, (aka Pee-wees or Mud Larks), Australasian Grebes, and Purple Swamphen were seen at both sites.

 

 

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A Jacky Winter flew down for a closer look at us at the Winton Cemetery.

 

 

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Long Waterhole was a peaceful haven for both campers and birds, the former were catching yabbies, a type of native crayfish in a net trap.

 

 

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This site was home to many birds including Little Corella,

 

 

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Glossy Ibis, White-necked Heron, Great Egret, White-plumed and Spiny-cheeked Honeyeaters. The final stop of the day was in a patch of mulga scrub where the birding was slow. The recent floodwaters are already obscured by a crazy-paved pattern of dry mud, the texture of which reminded me of Etosha Pan.

 

 

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Tonight we are staying in Winton at the Outback Motel, dinner was at Tattersalls Hotel  which is just visible in this photo of the main street. 

 

 

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Tomorrow birding starts at 7.30 with a drive of 110 km to Lark Quarry in search of Grey Falcon, Rufous-crowned Emuwren, Spinifexbird and Striated Grasswren. 

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Zubbie15

Thanks for sharing this @Treepol, an area and bunch of towns I'd never even heard of! We really enjoyed our time in the Outback a few years ago, this brings back some memories!

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Treepol

 

 

@Zubbie15 Bedourie and Windorah were new to me too.

 

Day 3
 
We left Winton at 7.30 as planned and once again Crested Pigeons are the first bird of the day.

 

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The drive to Lark Quarry takes about 2 hours with a few stops along the way for special birds such as this Wedge-tailed Eagle.

 

 

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A Grey Falcon on the wing was very welcome, but we drew a blank at 2 communications towers which are the preferred nesting places for these birds. Communications towers occur every 50 km along the road and we gazed hopefuly at each one!

 

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Birds seen along the way included a Crested Bellbird and Hall’s Babbler whilst mammals were represented by a pair of Red Kangaroos.

We were fortunate to see a family of Rufous-crowned Emu-wren.  The camera-shy male has a striking iridescent blue throat, however the female and baby were more accommodating. This was the first juvenile that Chook had ever seen.

 

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Chook located a Spinifexbird which showed very well. This guy lives in spinifex which is sharp, prickly and altogether a very inhospitable plant.

 

 

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The Striated Grasswren is a shy and secretive bird and we struggled for a quick view of this species as it scurried between clumps of Spinifex, and later caught a glimpse of one in flight. We stopped for a late lunch and then walked in search of Chestnut-breasted Button-quail but were unsuccessful. However, we did have a second chance at Hall’s Babbler and also saw a Rufous Whistler and a sleepy echidna.

 

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This tree is a true Ghost Gum, if you rub the bark a white powder sticks to your hands.

 

 

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Heading back to Winton Chook spotted Crimson Chats and someone else found a brilliant Red-backed Kingfisher.

 

 

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The Chats aren’t in full colour, but they do have red rumps. The last stop of the day is at Pelican Waterhole near the site of the original settlement of Winton. Zebra Finches and Dotterels were seen along the watercourse, and White-plumed Honeyeaters perched in the late afternoon sun.

 

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This had been a wonderful day's birding and we had high hopes for the drive to Boulia tomorrow.

 

 

 

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TonyQ

Excellent birding indeed. What a fascinating place.

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Treepol

Thanks @TonyQ

 

Day 4

 

The Crested Pigeons and Galahs (formerly known as the Rosy-breasted cockatoo) were out and about as early as we were. We drove out of Winton just after 7 and early bird sightings included emus, an Australian Bustard with 2 chicks which is rare (and probably due to the big wet). Next up were these Cockatiels perched on a fence

 

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and later a juvenile Spotted Harrier hunting.

 

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Chook stopped for good views of Flock Bronzewing and just as the bird was about to drink from a puddle a vehicle came and frightened it away. We consoled ourselves with views of Australian Pratincole.

 

Morning tea is at a lookout that has wonderful views over the surrounding green plains.

 

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Shortly after we met part of a herd of 2000 cattle being driven between stations to make the most of the improved grazing - Chook says that there are more road trains than usual, no doubt re-stocking stations after the floods. Today Grey Falcon was the number one target, and though we checked every comms tower for the 362 kms between Winton and Boulia we came up empty-handed. The search for Grey Falcon was intense and continued throughout the trip. Chook stopped and checked every communication tower that we saw, sadly to no avail. However, the colours of the surrounding country are spectacular - red, blue and green with a hint of mauve from the Mulla Mulla flower which has the texture of a paper daisy.

 

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Lunch today is at the historic Middleton Hotel which was built in 1876 and was an important staging post for Cobb & Co. back in the day. The publican Lester is a great storyteller and has owned the hotel for about 15 years since retiring from droving and station work.

 

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He told us that nearby Ringer’s Leap was a scene in the film Goldstone and that the pilot for Mystery Road, a popular Outback crime drama had been mostly filmed along the road between Longreach and Windorah. Lester’s wife Val said that the ‘veggie’ truck comes through every fortnight which is when she stocks up on fresh fruit and veg. The fish truck works on a similar timetable. Cheryl is visiting with a group of musicians and kindly stopped to give Val a hand to serve lunch - authentic damper with a tasty beef and veg stew.

 

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Back on the road we stopped at more towers and the Cawnpore Lookout for stunning views. This pair of brolgas was spotted close to Boulia, our base for the next 2 nights.

 

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The trees behind the motel are alive with budgerigars attempting to roost for the night. Their peace is shattered by a pair of Australian Hobbys that endlessly dive bomb the trees to force the budgies back into the open where they are an easy target. Chook says this is replayed every morning when the budgies are leaving the roost and to be out at 7 to see the spectacle.

 

 

 

 

 

Edited by Treepol

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offshorebirder

Thanks for this trip report from the channel country @Treepol.    How fortunate you were to visit during one of the wettest times in decades!

 

I am learning a lot an enjoying following along.

 

 

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Treepol

@offshorebirder yes, I was lucky to see the Channel Country in a rare season, however I'd like to see it in a normal year one day...

 

 

 

Day 5

 

We left the Desert Sands Hotel at 7 a.m. after a quick check around this quiet country town, not to much budgie and hobby action today. The budgies had decided to camp elsewhere after yesterday's carnage. 

 

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We drove down the Coorabulka Road which provides access to many cattle stations in this region of prime grazing land. Inland Dotterel was our first target and Chook found a pair quite early - they have striking facial markings but this guy would not turn around.

 

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This Gould’s or Sand Monitor was lying near a cattle grid and once we got close to it, the tail was poised for a strong blow to the nearest shin.

 

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Driving on, we saw budgies and Masked Woodswallows . The budgies were enjoying the morning sun and occasionally feeding on the ground while the Masked Woodswallows fed on a yellow flowering plant.

 

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Next stop was for a pair of Red-backed Kingfishers.

 

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A pair of brolgas flew off as we stopped for morning tea which was soon followed by lunch before a walk at Elizabeth Springs.

 

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Black-fronted Dotterel, Red-capped Plover and a Straw-necked Ibis were the first birds seen. We spent time chasing female Orange Chats before a beautiful White-winged Fairy-wren claimed our attention. 

 

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Orange Chat

 

Driving back to Boulia the landscape is very flat.

 

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Along the Burke River, closer to Boulia we found a quiet corner where the birds were settling down in the late afternoon sun. 

 

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The birdlife along the river included Peaceful and Diamond Doves, Sacred Kingfisher and Rufous Songlark. However the long shadows and vegetation made photography quite challenging.

 

 

Tomorrow we are heading to Bedourie in search of Gibberbird and Grey Falcon (of course).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edited by Treepol

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Soukous

Not wanting to drag you too far off topic @Treepol, but what's the birding like in Tassie?

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Treepol

@Soukous Tasmania has about 200 bird species including 12 endemics which are accessible within 2-3 hours of Hobart. Most of the international birding companies visit between November and January, so that must be the best time! A Tropical Birding guide told me years ago that they saw all the Tasmanian endemics in 3 days with visits to Bruny Island, Mt Wellington and Eaglehawk Neck all easy drives from Hobart. Personally, I think thats rushing things but it must be do-able.

 

I prefer a more leisurely approach and think that the birding around Hobart is great - I frequently see up to 10, maybe more species when I am dog-walking at Cornelian Bay within 5 minutes drive of  my house and the Hobart Domain is a reliable site for another 5 or so species including the flashy Eastern Rosella. About 15 minutes north is Gould's Lagoon where its possible to see up to 20 species on a good day - very good for both water and bush birds. Birdlife Tasmania have an annual excursion program based around Hobart that visits a number of interesting birdy locations such as Calvert's Lagoon, Waverley Flora Park and Windemere Bay.

 

My favourite easily seen birds include the Eastern Rosella, Musk Lorikeet, Suphur-crested and Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos, Green Rosella, Scarlet and Flame Robins, Wood Duck, Chestnut Teal, White-faced Heron, Pied and Sooty Oystercatchers and the Superb Fairywren. I am still waiting for a really good view of a Pink Robin and any view of Swift and Blue-winged Parrots.

 

Are you heading our way?

 

 

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Treepol

Day 6

 

We left Boulia after a very pleasant stay at the Desert Sands Hotel. The Boulia sewage ponds were the first stop where a group of chattering Grey-crowned Babblers raced around in the morning sunlight. We travelled 200 km down the Springvale Road for 8 hours and in that time we saw just one other car and a helicopter, and lots of birds of course. Once on the road we stopped to read about Waddi trees before having a tea stop beside a peaceful river where budgies called and Fairy Martins flew around the bridge. The Waddi tree is a rare acacia which is now restricted to just 3 sites in central Australia.

 

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A pair of brolgas kept a wary eye on us.

 

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Just after morning tea we saw one of the most important birds of the trip - the elegant, elusive and highly-sought Letter-winged Kite. Close views were not possible, as we didn’t want to hassle them too much. However as we were piling back into the bus Chook noticed a helicopter and said this would make the birds fly again.

 

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Sure enough 5 kites flew out of a tree, displaying the W on the underside of the wing. After this excitement we drove into Diamantina Shire where we immediately noticed that the roads needed some attention after the flooding.

 

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This area is reputedly amongst the best in the world for fattening cattle due to the herbage which grows here. It is also “big sky country” where the flat land is unrelieved by trees or structures from horizon to horizon.

 

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A family of Inland Dotterels ran by the roadside, giving a second chance at this hard to see bird.

 

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The group began an earnest search for the Gibberbird.

 

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This bright yellow bird lives on and around stony patches known as gibber plains. Gibberbirds are very inquisitive and this one was no exception, circling the group and inching closer giving excellent photo ops.

 

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This sign gives some history of the area we are travelling through en route to Bedourie for a 2 night stay at the Royal Hotel.

 

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There is a lot of water lying along the road to Bedourie, where Chook has never seen water before. Yellow-billed and Royal Spoonbills are sighted at Eyre Creek near town along with a White-necked Heron and a pair of Great Egrets and further downriver a flock of pelicans. We are running a bit late and Chook is keen to get to the pub for some information about the road to Birdsville, however there is time for one more stop on the recently flooded causeway - who could drive past this Red-necked Avocet family?

 

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The Royal Hotel was built in 1886 and is a genuine Australian pub from yesteryear which has been in the Smith family for decades.

 

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Some features of the original building remain such as the veranda and some brickwork. Relics of a more modern era include a (free) juke box and Hammond organ. I shall remember it as the place that I had to operate the shower taps with a no.8 spanner! We received a warm welcome and enjoyed delicious lamb chops for dinner.

 

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Here is Chook relaxing at the Royal Hotel after a hard day's birding.

 

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Edited by Treepol

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Treepol

 

Today began with breakfast in the front bar of the pub where the heaters fought hard against the chilly morning air. This old house opposite the pub is one of the original buildings in town.

 

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We piled into the bus and drove out of town which doesn’t take long because the population of Bedourie is only 142. Chook was surprised to see a flock of Nankeen Night Herons flying overhead, but you never know what you will see after the floods.

 

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We checked out the racecourse, then walked down to the Eyre Creek where this Black Kite and a Magpie Lark kept an eye on the waterhole.

 

 

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The next tree along was occupied by a Yellow-billed Spoonbill, and pelicans took flight as we approached.

 

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Black-winged Stilts waded near one of the most unusual golf courses in the world and a beautiful Red-browed Pardalote flitted and flirted, before posing for photos.

 

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Further along the road an interesting waterhole was the scene of some helicopter parenting as these Red-necked Avocets did all they could to lead us away from their family, including the broken wing display.

 

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We left them in peace and moved on to another waterhole that had good cover for crakes, however these were hiding deep in the reeds so we admired the Zebra Finches and Diamond Doves instead.

 

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We ate lunch near a dry creek bed, mostly out of the wind but accompanied by a million flies, or so it seemed at the time. After lunch we walked up the creek bed and found a female Variegated Fairy Wren but it was the colourful and elusive male that would have been the prize. The target bird of the afternoon was the Cinnamon Quail Thrush which lives in terrain like this. Today we were unsuccessful but there will be other chances later in the trip. A Crimson Chat was a very acceptable consolation.

 

The last stop of the day was a floodpan outside Bedourie where Chook had never seen water before. We walked to the top of the dune for a view of the surrounding country and found this temporary wetland. I counted 4 families of Red-necked Avocet, ducks and the first Red-kneed Dotterel of the trip.

 

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Tomorrow we’re heading to Birdsville, a legendary outback town although outpost may be a better description. Birdsville is famous for its isolation, the pub, the Birdsville Cup held in September and for being the northern point of the famous Birdsville Track which winds through outback South Australia into southwest Queensland. The pub has featured in books, films, documentaries and most recently on the news as the floodwaters inched south and key access roads were closed and some still are. Tomorrow will be an interesting travel day.

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TonyQ

Fascinating and very enjoyable. You had a great selection of birds.

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xelas

Australia, outside of the coastal belt, is so different to any other coutryside, it is a fascinating place to explore. 

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