Sturt NP and Surrounds Trip Report (Sept/Oct 2008) Tim Dolby
Hi birders and outback birding fans,
I've just returned from brilliant birding trip to Sturt NP, north-west NSW.
While there I made side trips to the Bulloo Overflow in Queensland, and to the
red sand dunes of the Strzelecki Desert, just west of Cameron Corner in South
Australia. My 10-year-old son asked me to bring back some red desert sand,
which, fortunately I did. My 2-year-old son just missed me!
Amoungst the highlights were Eyrean and Grey Grasswren, Grey Falcon, Cinnamon
Quail-thrush, Pied Honeyeater and Ground Cuckoo-shrike.
During my stay I camped at Dead Horse Gully near Tibooburra, and Fort Grey just
east of Cameron Corner, and on the way back I dropped into the wonderful
Mutawintji NP. To reduce the amount of driving (in decadence) from Melbourne I
flew to Mildura, hired a car, effectively halving the travel distance of the
trip. I hired a M. Outlander. Technically I wasn?t allowed take it off-road
(traveling around Sturt NP / Strzelecki Desert isn?t off-road is it?). Despite
cleaning inside and out - at a car wash in Broken Hill - the hire car people
(Europcar) in Mildura described it as the dirtiest car ever returned.
My particular aim was to see the Grasswren species, Eyrean and Grey. I
remember, as a child I?d spent hours looking at these two particular Grasswren
sp in Slater's hardback Passerines. Their distribution appeared as dots in the
middle of the vast Australian continent. I remember thinking about great
adventures, tracking them down in the wilds of the outback; traveling to "the
back of Bourke and back", literally. In Cayley's 'What Bird is That?' the Grey
Grasswren doesn?t even appear in the plates; it wasn?t scientifically described
until 1968, although it was actually observed in 1921 by Arthur Chenery (a
founding member of Birds Australia). For some reason the Eyrean Grasswren
intrigued me most. First discovered in 1874 at Macumba River north-west of Lake
Eyre, it then disappeared and was considered extinct until 1961 (when it was
seen in the same area). It was not until 1976 that the SA Museum was able to
confirm the birds' existence, in the Simpson Desert. So...
I had three possible Grey Grasswren sites within reach of Sturt NP. One was
over 250 km away near the bridge over Cooper Creek on Adventure Way (the road
to Innamincka), just east of Ballara Gas Centre. The other two sites targeted
Amytornis barbatus barbatus ssp, confined to the Bulloo River overflow. Found
only in habitat dominated by lignum, cane grass, and old man saltbush, the area
of occurrence is less than 100km2. One spot was west of the Adelaide Gate,
while the easiest to reach was Pyampa Station in Queensland just north of
There has been some debate about access to Pyampa, once abandoned it now has a
staffed workhouse. From Tibooburra I tried to contact the owners; however,
perhaps because it was Grand Final Day (the Hawks won, damn) I could not reach
anybody. Rather than disturb residents and cattle on the farm, the Pyampa site
can be reached on foot along a creek line:
- to reach the GGW site, from Tibooburra drive north for 22km, then turn right
to the Wompah Gate, a further 33km. After the gate drive 5.3 km until you reach
a small (usually dry) creek line. Walk along the creek for approximately 2 km,
to where there is a bore with a windmill on your right. Continue northeast
along the creek line for another 1.3 km until you come to a fence. Cross the
fence and from here you can see the lignum and cane grass in front of you. Walk
northeast until you come to the larger clumps of lignum and search this area
for the Grey Grasswren. I found a small party of 3 birds (maybe more) after
about half an hours searching.
Birders usually describe this site as being barren however, quite the opposite;
I found it to be really interesting, seeing Emu, Hoary-headed Grebe, Grey Teal,
Black Kite, Nankeen Kestrel, Brown Falcon, Red-kneed Dotterel, Banded Lapwing
(in the gibber area just to the nth), Diamond Dove, Little Corella, flocks of
Cockatiel and Budgerigar, Mallee Ringneck, Blue Bonnet (y ssp), Red-backed
Kingfisher, Rainbow Bee-eater, White-backed Swallow, Australasian Pipit,
White-winged Fairy-wren, Yellow-rumped Thornbill, Southern Whiteface,
Spiny-cheeked, Singing and White-plumed Honeyeater, Crimson and Orange Chat,
White-browed Babbler, Chirruping Wedgebill, White-winged Triller, Willie
Wagtail, White-breasted and Black-faced Woodswallow, Australian Magpie,
Australian Raven, Little Crow, Australasian Pipit, Welcome Swallow, and Tree
Martin (38 sp).
I'd actually been within a stones throw of Eyrean Grasswren last year, when
birding along the Santa Teresa Rd south of Alice Spring (they are found several
hundred km further south near Old Andado on the northern edge of the Simpson
Desert). On this trip I saw Eyrean Grasswren 36 km west of Cameron Corner atop
of the red sand dunes (of the Strzelecki Desert), on the south side of the road
in clumps of Sandhill Cane Grass (Zygochloa paradoxa). An interesting point
here, they seem to prefer the Cane Grass rather than the Spinifex (Triodia),
which is found between the sand dunes in this area. Other birds seen at this
site included Cinnamon Quail-thrush, Variegated Fairy-wren, Diamond Dove,
Horsfield's Bronze-cuckoo, Red-backed and Sacred Kingfisher, Crimson Chat,
Zebra Finch and White-backed Swallow.
Tibooburra to Cameron Corner
One of the best birding spot in Sturt NP is along Fort Grey Rd and Dunes Scenic
Dr. The most common species were Crimson Chat, Nankeen Kestrel, Black-faced
Woodswallow, Crested Pigeon, White-backed Swallow (they nested along the
roadside 11 km east of Cameron Corner) and Emu. Along this road I also saw
Australian Pratincole, and had a possible Grey Falcon zoom over a ridge just
west of Fort Grey.
I camped at Fort Grey, which is surely one of the best places in Australia to
see Ground Cuckoo-shrike. It was a common campsite bird, as were
Yellow-throated Miner, Black-faced Woodswallow, Crested Bellbird,
Chestnut-rumped Thornbill, Galah, and Little Corella. I also saw Red-browed
Pardalote and Black-eared Cuckoo. It is worth noting that during the heat of
the day (30 degrees plus, when I was there) that the Fort Grey campsite seems
barren (as does much of Sturt NP), but at dusk and dawn, with changing light,
and when the birds began to move about, it becomes a very pleasant place to be.
(Give it time.)
Toona Gate Rd
It was along this road that I saw Grey Falcon. I?d spent quite some time
birding in this area, particularly those spots with good views over the
landscape. The best views are near McDonalds Peak. Eventually (after two days)
I'd excellent views of a Grey Falcon. It flew over the car, and then
disappeared as quickly as it appeared.
Gorge Loop Rd
Starting from the Mt Wood campground end, I found this road to be perhaps the
most interesting section of Sturt National Park. It begins with large areas of
gibber, and then traversed through rolling hills and wooded creek lines. Along
here I saw Cinnamon Quail-thrush (2km from the Mt Wood campground), Crimson and
Orange Chat were both common, Emu, Spotted Harrier, Chirruping Wedgebill,
Red-backed Kingfisher, Blue Bonnet, honeyeaters included Singing, White-plumed
and Spiny-cheeked, White-winged Fairy-wren, Chestnut-crowned Babbler, Little
Eagle, Nankeen Kestrel, Brown Falcon and Black Kite. In a gibber section of the
loop I also saw a flock of 20 Whiskered Tern flying slowly south. To me this
seemed quite amazing to me: miles away from the nearest inland waters, they
were obviously migrating south across the interior of the Australia desert.
Perhaps I would catch up with them later in Victoria later.
Towards the northern end of the Gorge Loop Rd a good spot to birdwatch is near
the Horton Parkin ruin and its associated water bore. It was one of the most
lively sites in Sturt, with Black-eared Cuckoo, Variegated Fairy-wren, Zebra
Finch, Southern Whiteface, Pied Butcherbird, Little Crow, White-winged Triller,
Brown and Rufous Songlark, Black-faced Woodswallow, Common Bronzewing and
several water birds including a White-necked Heron, Hoary-headed Grebe,
Black-fronted Dotterel and Black Duck. Nearby there were also areas of scrub
and flowering Eremophila, with small numbers of Pied Honeyeater as well as
Spiny-cheeked, White-plumed and Singing Honeyeater.
(Big NOTE: a recent report of Striated Grasswren near Mt Wood seems unlikely.
The habitat is inappropriate, with no Triodia. The only species of grasswren
that seems likely is Thick-billed GW. This also seems unlikely; with the
nearest populations is Lake Blanche, SW of Cameron Corner at least 250 km west
of Mt Wood. Graeme Chapman and I have discussed viable possibilities, and are
interested in any GW sightings in this area.)
Mutawintji National Park
To break the trip up, on the way back to Mildura I camped at Mutawintji NP, 130
km nth of Broken Hill. A delightful national park, it was described to me as a
mini Flinders Ranges. Considering there?s an isolated population of
Yellow-footed Rock Wallaby (first discovered here in 1977), the description
seems quite appropriated. The park?s made up of a series of rocky red gorges
along Red Gum-lined creeks, surrounded by chenopod and shrubby plains. When I
was there it was teeming with birds, particularly parrots such as Mallee
Ringneck, Mulga Parrot, Galah, Little Corella and Major Mitchell's Cockatoo.
The campsite (which has hot showers ? my first in 6 days), is populated by
White-winged Chough and Apostlebird.
At Mutawintji I recorded Brown Goshawk, Little Eagle, Spotted Harrier,
Wedge-tailed Eagle, Tree Martin, Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike, White-winged
Triller, Red-capped Robin, Rufous Whistler, White-browed and Chestnut-crowned
Babbler, Chirruping Wedgebill, Variegated Fairy-wren, Yellow-rumped and
Chestnut-rumped Thornbill, Southern Whiteface, Striated Pardalote,
Yellow-throated Miner, Spiny-cheeked Honeyeater, Apostlebird, White-breasted
Woodswallow, Pied Butcherbird, Common Bronzewing, Pallid Cuckoo, Crested
Bellbird, Little Crow and Australian Raven. At night, I heard Southern Boobook
(a bird I didn?t hear at Sturt) and Australian Owlet-nightjar. A bird on
Mutawintji bird list is Hall's Babbler, the southern-most distribution of this
species. Restricted to the gorge systems of Mutawintji (such as Amphitheatre
Gorge), this bird is also recorded (and has been banded) within the
?restricted? northern area of the park.
Finally, if I may, I'd like to dedicate the trip to Sally Symonds, who passed
away while I was at Sturt. Thinking about you Sally.
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