Birding cruise through Barmah Choke

Subject: Birding cruise through Barmah Choke
From: Keith Stockwell <>
Date: Sun, 18 Feb 2007 13:11:17 +1100
Hi all,

A few days ago, I posted some notes about Barmah-Millewa wetlands, and
asked whether engineering works at The Narrows (Barmah Choke) would be good
or bad news for the forest. I hope to obtain more information at the
Barmah-Millewa CRG (Citizens Reference Group) meeting on Friday. I'll keep
those of you you responded informed.

(The meeting I referred to in my last posting was of the CRG but somehow
its name was deleted when I tried to correct a typo. I have a trouble
insofar as I type extremely quickly, make errors and inadvertently delete
slabs of text when attempting to correct an error. Sorry. Whilst doing
national service, I was given a virtual ultimatum: learn to type at around
60 wpm or serve in Vietnam. Made the speed, pity about the typos and my
reluctance to carefully proof read).

Yesterday evening (Saturday 17th February 2007), a group of Echuca and
District BOCA members enjoyed a cruise from Barmah Lake picnic ground
through The Narrows aboard a small, flat-bottomed vessel, 'MV Kingfisher'.
As owner-operator Benita was otherwise occupied (at Echuca's jazz festival
perhaps), a Barmah local who has captained the vessel from time-to-time
over many years (and who is also a member of the CRG), John, took the helm.

We met at a park in Barmah Town (opposite the only Victorian hotel located
north of the Murray River, such is the nature of the winding Murray River),
where we observed Blue-faced Honeyeater (they are nearly always observed in
the park), Red Wattlebird, Sulphur-crested Cockatoo and Noisy Miner. We
then drove in convey from Barmah Town to Barmah Lake picnic ground. The
Kingfisher leaves from alongside the riverside picnic ground.

Before stepping aboard, we walked alongside the Murray a few hundred metres
to its confluence with Broken Creek. A solitary Coot cruised along the
Murray, some Pied Cormorants and a Great Cormorant shared a dead branch
which was suspended over the water. Welcome Swallows and Tree Martins
wheeled about overhead. A Great Egret waded about in search of aquatic
morsels. A flock of raucous Sulphur Crested Cockatoos made sure that all
the creatures of the forest knew of our presence. A party of Superb Fairy
Wrens fluttered about the exposed tree roots at the water's edge. A Little
Raven called in the distance and a Kookaburra flew above us. Other bird
species sighted included Purple Swamp Hen, Black Duck, Striated Pardalote,
Galah, Magpie, Restless Flycatcher and Magpie Lark.

John has a wonderful knowledge of the forest and stopped the vessel at one
point where, between Barmah Lake (Victoria) and Moira Lake (NSW),  the
perched river is clearly higher than the country either side, and contained
only by natural silt jetties built up during years of flood. Who said
rivers flow in valleys! And in places creeks flow OUT of the Murray rather
than in to it!

The whole ecosystem of the wetlands depends upon the carrying capacity of
The Narrows being exceeding during late winter and spring each year. That's
why i am so concerned about 'engineering works' to enable water to by-pass
the choke.

Drought has affected our area for nearly 14 years and parts of the forest
have not been flooded over that time. The average annual rainfall is too
low to support the forest and its wetlands.

When the forest is deep in flood, the 'MV Kingfisher' can travel over
Barmah Lake and use runners to travel 'cross country' to the river. Other
times, it is restricted to the river as it was yesterday evening.
Travelling 'cross country' is much more exciting but costly of propellers.

Some parts which had not been flooded for years were burnt in a large fire
early this summer. Smouldering roots resulted in several flare ups. To help
extinguish the fires, much of the area on fire was flooded. Red Gum does
not respond well to fire and it will take many years for the area to

Over the past few years, particularly in spring, other parts of the forest
were flooded using  rejection flows (water released for irrigators but not
required owing to rain) as well as environmental water. At times over
summers, the channel capacity was exceeded, flooding some of the wetlands.

The Reed Beds near Mathoura were flooded last summer (2005-06) which
resulted in a significant bird breeding event, many pairs of Intermediate
Egrets successfully raising young.  Extra environmental water was used to
maintain flooding until the Egrets had completed their breeding. Some of
the water used was, I understand, environmental water which had previously
been lent to irrigators: it was paid back by them. The Reed Beds are
presently dry. The viewing from its bird hides should be fantastic again
once the wetland is next flooded.

This summer, most of the 7,000 (or thereabouts) wetlands along the Murray
are dry and almost all environmental water has either been held in storage
(it exists, perhaps, only on paper) or 'lent' to irrigators.

The Narrows is now bankful throughout summer (to help meet the demands of
Adelaide and irrigators downstream). John showed us some of the regulators
and banks have been built across creeks to prevent water from running out
of the Murray into the wetlands such as Moira Lake (which is three times
the size of Barmah Lake and which is contained within a Flora Reserve from
which cattle have been excluded). Moira Lake has responded well to the
restoration scheme and the bird life has responded magnificently. When it
contained water in 2005-06 there were lots of Whiskered Terns, Ibis,
Egrets, ducks and other birds breeding in the reserve.

Decades ago, Moira Lake was a major fishery, up to six tons of fish being
taken to Melbourne markets each week. River regulation, overfishing and the
introduction of European carp destroyed the industry and commercial fishing
is now banned. It is hope that the Moira Lake restoration scheme will
result in a vast increase in the numbers of native fish and, therefore,
water birds. So far all the signs are positive and carp are being caught in
specially-designed traps.  Plus Murray Cod and some other native fish
appear to have learned to eat young carp.

As the little boat made its way upstream against a strong current (for the
Murray flows much, much faster ~ 7km/hour ~ through The Narrows than it
does either upstream or downstream ~ 4km/hour), we sighted a Whistling Kite
sitting in a tree. John pointed out the nest of a White-bellied Sea-eagle.
Then we sighted one sitting atop a riverside tree. There are between 8 and
10 breeding pairs in this section of forest. A few Azure Kingfishers were

Brown Treecreepers were busy running up tree trunks. Surprisingly, we did
not observe a White-throated Tree-creeper which is the more common of the
two in riverside Red Gums. (Brown Treecreepers are more common in Barmah's
Box Forests ~ Grey Box, Red Box and Black Box are the dominant trees in
places; Callitris Pine is the dominant tree on the sandhills)

Our cruise took us upstream to Red Hole Lagoon. The lagoon is on the
Victorian side of the river and there is no regulator to constrain water
from it. Like most wetlands which are permanently wet, it supported few
birds, just a handful of Pelicans and some Grey Teal. A flock of Yellow
(form of Crimson) Rosellas flew overhead. Someone observed an Emu, one of
many in the forest, on the far side of the lagoon. John mentioned that
skipper/owner Benita had observed a male Emu with several young swimming
across the Murray a few weeks earlier.

During the return journey downstream, we sighted several Azure Kingfishers,
and John was able to manoeuvre the boat close to some of them so that
photographers could get good photos.

We enjoyed some wonderful views of Darters.

Near the end of the cruise, John drove the craft close to Snake Island so
that everyone could see a Nankeen Night Heron. If you ever visit Barmah
lake, look carefully in the willows of Snake Island (near the camp ground
where the lake and the Murray become one), for Nankeen Night Herons are
always present.

Other birds observed during the cruise, or immediately upon landing,
included Wood Duck, Grey Teal, White-faced Heron, Brown Goshawk, Collared
Sparrowhawk, Peaceful Dove, Little Corella, Red-rumped Parrot,
White-breasted Woodswallow, Dusky Woodswallow, White-plumed honeyeater and
Australian Raven.

As darkness descended, our 'bird call' (one participant claimed she could
only make a kookaburra call) totalled 41 species.

Birds we hoped/expected to see but didn't included Sacred Kingfisher,
Dollar Bird, Rainbow Bee-eater, Tawny Frogmouth, Boobook, Red-browed Finch
and Diamond Firetail.

More information about Barmah-Millewa forest is on my web site ~ there's a
link on the home page of the Echuca and District BOCA web site.
Downloadable pdf birding site brochures (including Barmah and Gulpa Creek)
are on the web site.

Keith Stockwell, Moama.


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