I have just recently returned from 8 magnificent days in the Mackay region
of dry Queensland, where I had what was possibly the best birdwatching of my
life. It had been 14 years since I was last in this part of Australia, and
since I re-started my life list in July last year (for various reasons) I
wanted to do some serious watching. My listing aim was to add at least 50
new species, and my general aim was to get used to Queensland birds again.
Mackay was dry - tinder dry. According to several locals, it was the driest
they had seen for many years. But the birds didn't seem to mind. By far
the commonest birds were Magpie-Larks, Masked Lapwing, Figbirds and
White-breasted Woodswallows. They were absolutely everywhere. For those
who don't know the area, Mackay is a shipping port and sugar industry city.
It is possibly the only non-tourist town on the entire Queensland east
coast. The Pioneer River runs through it, and the coast is a mixture of
rocky outcrops, mudflats and mangroves. Inland is mostly flat and given
over to sugar-cane crops, with chains of N-S running hills and mountains
covered in remnant scub. Almost all the creeks were dry, and the only
native vegetation on the flatlands was thin riparian strips centred around
these creek beds.
But the lack of native vegetation and water didn't seem to affect the
birdwatching. In the 7 1/2 days of birdwatching I had, I saw 197 species,
99 of which were new to me, and had fantastic views of all but 5 of these.
I flew up on Wednesday, leaving 24 degree Melbourne weather, to be greeted
by 27 degree Mackay weather - so not much of a change, really. I met up
with my father, who had just (that morning) finished a BOCA tagalong tour
through the wet tropics, and had a trip list of around 310 species. That
afternoon, we visited one of Mackay's northern beaches where we saw, amongst
other things, my first ever Helmeted Friarbird (which were the commonest
honeyeaters of the trip), Lesser Sand Plover, Greater Sand Plover and
Oriental Plover - even having these in the same scope-view, which helped
greatly in identification. In a little over two hours birdwatching in a hot
QLD afternoon, I already had 18 lifers, including several Rajah Shelduck, in
a pond near the Mt Pleasant Shopping Centre, and at Goose Ponds.
Thursday morning saw us on the road at 6:30, with the second bird for the
day, Yellow-bellied Sunbird, another lifer, seen while eating breakfast. We
headed for the Slade Point Natural Resource Management Reserve (I hope I got
the name right, it seemed a mouthful when I saw it). On the way, we saw
Orange-footed Scrubfowl in the edges of the Mackay Port Conservation area,
and had Red-tailed Black Cockatoo fly over us at the Slade Point car park.
The walks through the reserve cover sand-dunes, mangrove edge, open scrub,
paperbark swamp and closed scrub. In spite of the bone-dry swamp we still
saw plenty, including Brush Turkey (hardly rare, but still a lifer for me),
Rufous Fantail, Rose-crowned Fruit-Dove and more scrubfowl. On a sidenote,
does anyone know how Scrubfowl and Brush Turkey live in sympatry? Is there
resource sharing, do they have different food/habitat niches within the same
environment, or is there some other reason?
On the way back home (I stayed with my Grandmother in the Leap, about 20km W
of Mackay), we saw two Squatter Pigeon sitting on the ground beside a
bus-stop in Slade Point, for all the world as though they wanted to catch
the next bus along. In the afternoon, we made our first trip to McEwans
Beach, about 10km S of Mackay. On the way, I saw my first Blue-winged
Kookaburra, and about 19 Brolgas feeding amongst the cut canefields.
McEwans Beach is all mangroves and mudflats, and during the week we saw,
amongst others, Beach Stone-Curlew, Striated Heron, Mangrove Gerygone, Grey
Plover, Pacific Golden Plover, Terek Sandpiper, Marsh Sandpiper, Mangrove
Honeyeater, Fairy Tern, Little Tern, and Scrubfowl.
On Friday, we headed for Kinshant Dam, starting innocuously enough with a
Magpie. By the end of the day, I had seen 125 species (the most ever for
me). We stopped at the little town of Marina on the way there to check for
honeyeaters on some flowering callistemons. The trees only had two species,
Brown Honeyeater and Bar-breasted Honeyeater, but they were unconcerned with
our presence and offered spectacular views. At Kinshant Dam, we saw Spotted
Harrier and Bustard in the same binocular view, and Plum-headed Finch,
Singing Bushlark and a bird I have been chasing for over a decade, Glossy
Ibis. On the way back home for lunch, we detoured to a patch of riparian
bush near Gargett that had been recommended to us by Marj Andrews. There we
found Tawny Grassbird, Topknot Pigeon and Brown Cuckoo-Dove. A few days
later we waded down the creekbed and found a pair of Little Kingfishers,
nesting Large-billed Gerygones, Azure Kingfisher and White-eared Monarch.
The creekbed we walked along joins onto Cattle Creek, and it was up another
of the Cattle Creek tributaries (Palm tree Creek) that we found White-browed
Robin, Pacific Baza, Bush-Hen and White-throated Gerygone.
We spent one morning up at Eungella N.P., where following Marj Andrews'
advice, we tried for Eungella Honeyeater along various roads. After about 2
hours of head-out-the-window driving and walking, we found a small flock
feeding above the road, where we had excellent, though short-lived views.
Incidentally, we didn't see the birds at first, we knew to stop because of
their distinctive calls. Also at Eungella were more Topknot Pigeons, and
some exceptional close-up views of Regent Bowerbird females, including a
mother with a juvenile she was still finding food for.
On Sunday, we headed up the road to Bowen, where Jon, Laura and Camilla Wren
took us to some of the birding sites of the area. We had a really good time
being shown around, and found the surprise bird (for me) of the trip, a
Banded Lapwing in the middle of a dustblown, eroded landscape. Red-necked
Avocet, Great Bowerbird, Beach Stone-curlew, Brown Booby, Zebra Finch and
Black-tailed Godwit were other highlights. Thank you Jon and family for
your time, expertise and friendly welcome.
Some of the other places we visited were Cape Hillsborough N.P., where we
went on the mangrove boardwalk and saw about 8 species, as the place is
stricken by drought. Of the few birds we did see though, were three lifers
(all posing magnificently): Wompoo Fruit-Dove, Grey Goshawk and Noisy Pitta.
We also visited the little town of Seaforth, where I waded knee-deep through
mangrove mud in search (successfully) of Black Butcherbird. Cathu State
Forest, approx. 80km north of Mackay was a bit of a disappointment - there
are large pine plantations, cattle and feral pigs throughout the forest, but
we did find Barking Owl and Fairy Gerygone while there. At Finch Hatton
Gorge, we were overrun by tourists, backpackers and school-holiday-driven
families, but still saw Large-billed Scrubwren and White-rumped Swiftlet.
I dipped on very few birds - the only ones I searched for and didn't find
were Mangrove Robin and Eastern Reef Heron. All in all, it was a very
worthwhile trip. I will give the full list of birds in another email.
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