Trip Report: Murray Darling Basin (Australia), November 1-14, 1998

Edwin Vella, Sidney, Australia;

Myself and David Koffel have just returned from an enjoyable and pleasant inland trip. As a result of covering new birding habitats - the Mallee, Mulga, the Bluebush plains etc, several species were new to me, and I saw a total of 37 lifers out of a total trip list of 225 species.

The main areas visited were as follows:

  1. Back Creek State Forest (east of West Wyalong, western NSW)
  2. Round Hill Nature Reserve (north-west of Lake Cargelligo, western NSW)
  3. Loughnan Nature Reserve (east of Hillston, western NSW)
  4. Hattah-Kulkyne National Park (north of Ouyen, north-western VIC)
  5. Wyperfeld National Park (south-west of Ouyen, north-western VIC)
  6. Lake Alexandrina (south-east of Adelaide, SA)
  7. The Coorong (south-east of Adelaide, SA)
  8. Messent Conservation Park (south-east of Adelaide, SA)
  9. Bool Lagoon (south of Naracoorte, SE SA)
  10. Mungo National Park (far-western NSW)
  11. Kinchega National Park (far-western NSW)
  12. Mootwingee National Park (far-western NSW)
  13. Cobar Waste Depot (western NSW, a good place for birds!!!)
  14. Gum Swamp, Forbes (western NSW)

Here follows my birding diary for the trip:

Day 1 - 1st November 1998 (Sydney - Lithgow - West Wyalong - Lake Cargelligo - Round Hill)

We left my place at 7am on Sunday and arrived at Bathurst (approx. 210 km west of Sydney City along the Great Western HWY), at about 9:30 am (traffic was good all the way until heading back to town). About 20 km before arriving in Cowra, we spotted our first inland bird, 4 Superb Parrots (3 males and 1 female) which perched in the Eucalyptus trees beside the road allowing great viewing. Though not a new bird for either myself or David, both of us agreed that this was the best views of Superb Parrots that we ever had. It was a great start for the trip.

We made a brief visit to Back Creek State Forest before West Wyalong and saw more typical inland species - Speckled Warblers, Inland Thornbill, several Red-capped Robins and Spiny-cheeked Honeyeater (the later, being one of the most commonly encountered birds for the trip).

We then headed to our first campsite in Round Hill Nature Reserve (north-west of Lake Cargelligo) and on our way we saw Blue Bonnets, many White-browed and some Black-faced Woodswallows, and at a lignum swamp between Lake Cargelligo and Round Hill, a first of many sightings of White-winged Wrens was obtained with 2 freshly plumage males perched and trilling away on a lignum bush only metres away.

We arrived at Round Hill Nature Reserve at about 4:30. Here mallee dominated the place, and we soon obtained close up views of Gilbert's Whistlers, a pair of Chestnut Quail-thrush, a Shy Heathwren, White-fronted and Yellow-plumed Honeyeaters and the lovely Splendid Wren all within metres of our camp site. Spotted Pardalotes of the yellow-rumped form was also sighted, and its call appears softer than that of the red-rumped form I am more familiar with. I possibly heard a Red-lored Whistler but the call was too brief and was unable to track it further.

In the evening, a quick drive around the area yielded a Spotted Nightjar in front of the headlights.

Day 2 - 2nd November 1998 (Round Hill)

Woke up early at 5:30 am to the inland dawn chorus dominated by the Honeyeaters - Yellow-plumed, White-fronted, Singing and Spiny-cheeked Honeyeaters. The chorus was soon joined by Gilbert's and Rufous Whistlers and by the ringing and ventriloquial call of the Crested Bellbird which we soon saw. The Bellbird was observed turning its head at different directions as it called, producing a ventriloquial effect. The call of this bird was seen or heard and later stages in our trip and to me ranked one of the best bird songs heard.

During the morning we spotted a pair of quite approachable Southern Scrubrobins on the north side of the wheat paddock with a Black Honeyeater and Black-eared Cuckoo heard nearby.

We drove around the actual "Round Hill" and were fortunate to find 7 Pink (Major Mitchell's) Cockatoo perched in a dead tree, but being fairly wary, they took flight minutes later after achieving good viewing. This was the largest number we had seen of this Cockatoo perched together, although we had sightings of 6 birds later on the trip, but other sightings was mainly of pairs.

We had initial difficulty in finding the Whoey trail which was supposed to have some great birds and mistakenly took a fire brake track, but just as well as there was a lot of bird activity about there. There were hundreds of White-browed and Masked Woodswallows, hundreds of White-winged Trillers (numbers of this bird which we have never seen previously with about 5 male Trillers perched together on the same termite mound), Rufous Songlarks, Pallid and Horsfield's Bronze-cuckoos as well as Crimson and White-fronted Chats. No doubt these number of birds were attracted to the abundance of butterflies and their larvae as well as the termites.

We eventually made our way on the Whoey trail and soon found that this spot was also just as productive, seeing Mulga and Mallee Ring-necked Parrots (there were also signs of the Mallee Rednecks with lots of bullet holes on just about every sign post in the area), Spotted Bowerbird and a bird that I have been chasing for quite some time, a Black-eared Cuckoo which perched and called on a dead Eucalypt. What a thrill, and it was very cooperative for a detailed study.

On our way back to camp we watched a number of birds come to drink at an almost dried up pool. Visitors to this pool included Mallee Ringnecks, Mulga Parrots, Common Bronzewings, Bar-shouldered Doves as well as Spiny-cheeked and White-eared Honeyeaters.

Day 3 - 3rd November 1998 (Round Hill - Loughnan Nature Reserve - Hay - Hattah)

Thinking that we were going to have an uninterrupted sleep for the night, we were woken up at one o'clock that morning by the weird laughter of the Spotted Nightjar as it flew around our camp site. I got up with my spotlight and saw it a number of times as it landed on the ground then took off at my approach. I was able to see the white spots clearly in each wing and its bright red eyes as it rested on the ground. I also heard the calls of several Little and Painted Button-quail calling at the time and thinking whether I would find them at night, but their calls were not continuous and therefore I decided to return to my sleep.

Later that morning, having decided that we have seen what we are most likely to see at Round Hill, we decided to head off to Loughnan Nature Reserve, to find the resident Malleefowl. Upon arriving there we tried to follow some given directions to a Malleefowl mound but we found all the tracks within this small reserve running all over the place making any track in the area looking vague, so we just wandered about through the bush. We ended up seeing no Malleefowl but had good views of a male and female Crested Bellbird, the former calling in the canopy of one of the Mallee Eucalypts and the later feeding on the ground, just metres in front of us. With little activity here, we decided to head straight off to Hattah-Kulkyne National Park in north-west Victoria.

Between Hillston and Booligal, we saw our first Emus for the trip with a small number of 6 seen. Further down the road at Mirrool Creek, just a little north of Hay, we stopped at a small channel amongst saltbush/bluebush and saw one of the most dazzling birds of the trip, a pair of Orange Chats, together with a pair of Crimson and a single White-fronted Chat, Brown Songlarks and Singing Bushlarks.

We soon passed through the Hay plains hoping to find some outstanding raptors on the way. The raptors seen along these plains were mainly Black Kites, Kestrels, Brown Falcons and our first pair of Wedge-tailed Eagles for the trip. More Emus were also seen on the plains.

Just before arriving at Hattah, we saw 3 Regent Parrots whiz past across the road. As it was getting dark quickly, we didn't bother to stop the car for a better look, as we were fairly confident in getting better views of them the next day (and we did).

Day 4 - 4th November 1998 (Hattah-Kulkyne and Wyperfeld National Parks)

Early morning, we saw various parrots come to drink at Lake Hattah - a pair of Pink Cockatoos, Sulphur-crested Cockatoos, Galahs, Little Corellas, Yellow Rosellas, Mallee Ringnecks, several Regent Parrots and some Red-rumped Parrots. A pair of Emus as well as several Red and Western Grey Kangaroos were also seen beside the lake. In the lake itself not many waterbirds were present apart from a few Cormorants and Australian Pelicans.

We aimed to find both Striated Grasswrens and Mallee Emuwrens that morning along the Nowingi track and soon obtained great views of the former singing in front of us on a low branch beside clumps of Spinifex. It was a thrill to see this bird as it was my first Grasswren, and I have heard others having difficulty in finding this bird. Well it does require just a little patience, and the bird will come right up to you. Also along this trail we saw 2 immature male Chestnut Quail-thrushes in trying to find the Mallee Emuwren which we could not see that morning.

After lunch we headed to Wyperfeld National Park. Here walked part of the trail to Lake Brambruk. In the heathy areas along the trail, past some fairly high sand dunes, we had a pair of Redthroats singing on top of bushes. I reckon these birds sound better than any caged canary and are a nice neat little bird. We found a Malleefowl mound at the end of the Dattak track, but it didn't seem to be in current use.

On our way back to Hattah, we saw a flock of 10-15 small lorikeets whiz in around our car and land in some red-flowering Eucalypts along the main street at Hopetoun. We soon found that these were Purple-crowned Lorikeets feeding with some Musk Lorikeets. What a treat.

We arrived back at camp in Hattah-Kulkyne and observed a Boobook Owl in one of the many large River Red Gums and heard a Tawny Frogmouth.

Day 5 - 5th November 1998 (Hattah-Kulkyne - Lake Alexandrina - Coorong)

We decided to have one more try for the Mallee Emuwren at the corner of the Nowingi track and the Old Calder Highway. This time we decided to walk in a bit more from the trail amongst the spinifex grass, and then success at last; a good view of a pair was obtained as they were enticed by a little squeaking.

We then headed through the SA-VIC border to Lake Alexandrina, just out of Adelaide, and on our way we spotted 16 Cape Barren Geese in paddocks beside the northern end of the lake itself. We went for a walk along the beach from Goolwa near the Murray River entrance but saw nothing really of interest, apart from a nice clean beach disturbed by 4WD's (What a shame!!!).

We made a final visit of the day to Tolderol Game Reserve, again on the north side of the lake. Here I heard a Little Bittern calling for some time in some reeds. Small numbers of waders were present, which included Sharp-tailed Sandpipers and Red-necked Stints (yes, the sign at the entrance did say lead bullets allowed in this reserve. Just as well these were the only rednecks seen).

With the initial intention of camping at Salt Creek, we were fearing that we will not make it as the fuel was running low, and David was getting a bit of the cold, so we pulled at the nearest place to stay at Woodswell, just 17km west of Salt Creek.

Day 6 - 6th November 1998 (The Coorong)

First point of call was the Petrol station at Salt Creek (about the middle of the Coorong) to stock up on fuel and oil. There was a Black-tailed Native Hen with 3 well grown chicks beside the Service Station. Here we met a couple of very helpful Aboriginal rangers. They told us that the Malleefowl still hangs about its mound 3.7km from the Service station on the Old Melbourne Rd. As we have been walking around a fair bit in mallee so far and had hoped to have seen one by now with all our walking, we went straight there in no time. Upon arrival, we saw the Malleefowl just finishing a few touches to its mound, but the bird did not decide to hang around too long. Being shy it is afraid of us humans and sneakingly disappeared from behind the mound. Despite this I was satisfied with a few minutes of viewing, seeing all its beautiful coloured patterns.

Near the mound, there is a loop track that goes around coastal mallee vegetation. We were hoping to find the Slender-billed Thornbill on this trail, but none were seen. However, along this trail, Black-winged Currawongs (a subspecies of the Grey Currawong) made their presence felt with there loud clanking calls.

We made a short visit to Messent Conservation Park, just a few km north of Salt Creek. Here we found in the Mallee Heath area a Shy Heathwren, a pair of Southern Scrubrobins and interestingly a pair of Eastern Yellow Robins. In the heathy areas, we found another Southern Scrubrobin, a Tawny-crowned Honeyeater and Southern Emuwrens.

On our way out, we unfortunately got bogged on the sandy road track that runs down to Messent CP. We then had to find a way to get our 2WD out from the sand. Fortunately, we struck luck once again. The 2 Aboriginal Rangers whom we met at the service station earlier that morning came out of nowhere, like God's Angels and helped us out in no time. Yes, they really deserve a beer. Not only did they find us the Malleefowl, they even got us out. Phew, we were lucky they came only a few minutes later, otherwise it would have been a 20 km walk to Salt Creek and back and a waste of our precious birding time. Late in the afternoon, we then drove from the southern end of the Old Melbourne Road, in the hope of finding Rufous Bristlebirds. We drove about 2 km up the road and decided to play a tape, when all of a sudden we saw this big thing run like a rabbit, pausing briefly in the middle of bushes. We were surprised how large this bird is compared to its cousin, the Eastern Bristlebird. We played the tape again, and it moved from one bush to another. 4 other Bristlebirds were also heard calling from either side of the road. Then up in a sky, a soft parrot call was heard, and we briefly saw an Elegant Parrot fly over.

We then moved up to Tea Tree crossing were I saw a pair of Fairy Terns perched on small rocks on the edge of the Coorong lagoon. Again further up the road we were surprised to see 5 Brush Bronzewings feeding with 2 Common Bronzewing Pigeons. The former being more smaller and rufous in colours behind the nape and back.

We made another visit to the Malleefowl mound and saw a Purple-gaped Honeyeater nearby.

We bumped into John Seemour from the Zoology department of Adelaide University who was studying the Bristlebirds at the Coorong the time we were there. He says that one of the best places to see these birds is at the Port Campbell in Victoria, where they run all over the car park there.

Day 7 - 7th November 1998 (The Coorong - Bool Lagoon - Bordertown - Loxton)

We decided to move on from the Coorong that day, but before we left, there was one more highlight there. A flock of at least 5000 Banded Stilts (containing a few juvenile birds) with smaller numbers of Red-necked Avocets gathering together on a small island in the middle of the Coorong Lagoon. With the tide rising, the stilts had left the island at the last minute before it was too deep for them. What an impressive sight they were.

We then headed to Bool Lagoon after being told it is often a good place for water birds and is of significance to South Australia's waterfowl. We found a number of Magpie Geese there, as well as Whiskered Terns, large numbers of Sacred and Straw-necked Ibis, several Musk Ducks and 4 (3 male and 1 female) Blue-billed Ducks. I have found these Blue-billed quite retiring compared to the other ducks, and when I disturbed these from the reeds, they dived down and didn't pop up until they were further out into the lagoon.

In the Naracoorte area, we saw and heard Forest Ravens and saw 4 Long-billed Corellas.

On our way to Loxton, where we intended to stay for the night (not far from the NSW and VIC borders), we saw another Malleefowl feeding beside the road (beside Ngarkat Conservation Park), an unexpected find.

Day 8 - 8th November 1998 (Loxton - Mildura)

Not much birding was done on this day as we were tired from the past week. All we did was move between 2 caravan parks from Loxton to Mildura. On our way we did see flowering Silky Oaks with many Little Friarbirds and Spiny-cheeked Honeyeaters and some attractive red-flowering gums attracting White-plumed and White-fronted Honeyeaters. Also between the 2 towns a flock of at least 300 Little Corellas were seen.

Day 9 - 9th November 1998 (Mildura - Mungo NP - Broken Hill)

We visited Mungo National Park via Harry Nanya Tours (an Aboriginal run touring company), departing from the Mildura Tourist Information Centre. This was sort of a break from birding, but not completely, as we saw some good birds to and within the National Park. We saw an Inland Dotterel beside the road, just north of Wentworth, but the bus would not stop for us to have a longer look. We also saw and heard Red-backed Kingfishers and our first Little Crows for the trip.

On the "Walls of China" within Mungo NP, we were shown the remains of a Hairy-nosed Wombat, Betongs, and believe it or not, the Tasmanian Tiger (now I can say I have seen one, well at least some of its bones). We were also shown the historic wool shed which was constructed of locally hand cut Cypress pine (white-ant resistant) logs. We also saw remains of a rabbit-proof fence which unfortunately has not prevented the rabbits to spread further inland.

Later that afternoon, after returning back to Mildura, we were ready for our next main part of our birding trip into more inland country around Broken Hill.

On our way there, along the Silver City HWY, we stopped at a good stand of Sheoak woodland and soon heard and saw our first White-browed Treecreepers. They were a shade darker than the Brown Treecreeper, with a very distinct eye brow and heavy streaks on the underside. Its calls are also quite distinctive and softer compared to that of the Brown Treecreepers. After having satisfying views of these birds and walking back towards the car, I had just missed an aggressive Eastern Brown Snake as it hissed after I walked over its log. I hadn't noticed it until David told me seconds latter. It was about 5 foot long.

A little further up the road, we saw our first Chestnut-crowned Babblers which we soon found to be quite common around the Broken Hill area. What I also like to note is that the Blue Bonnets in this part of the country are different than those seen earlier in the trip, with no red on vent (but yellow) and shoulders, being a different subspecies altogether.

Along the Silver City HWY, as it got darker, we had to be extra conscious concerning the roadside as hundreds of Kangaroos attempted to cross the road, and yes, we had 2 near misses. We felt relieved that night upon arriving in Broken Hill that we didn't hit one. However we could not avoid driving through a plague of insects up that stretch of road, with lots of insect fat marks all along the windscreen.

Day 10 - 10th November 1998 (Broken Hill - Kinchega NP - Mootwingee NP)

Set out that morning straight to Kinchega National Park along the Menindee Rd. On our way we spotted some Chestnut-crowned Babblers beside the Road and wanted to get a better look a them. Soon later I heard another new bird for the trip across the road, Chirruping Wedgebills. We found the Wedgebills quite common around Broken Hill and further north. They were usually seen in groups of up to 30 birds and often with the Chestnut-crowned Babblers. This was one of my favourite birds of the trip. Its amazing how such a bird can sing nicely almost non-stop on top of the low bushes. We also found it quite curious at times and approached us through squeaking.

At Kinchega National Park, we disturbed an Owlet Nightjar beside Menindee Lake, which was full of water after good rains in the area. This rain cut off the road from Ivanhoe to Menindee. This was originally our planned route to Broken Hill, but just as well we stuck to the bitumen along the Silver City HWY. There were several water birds in the lake itself including quite a few Australian Shelducks, but being so large, most waterbirds may have been at the other end of the lake which was not accessible. We had some good finds around the lakes including my first Black-breasted Buzzard (seen soaring above the trees), a pair of White-backed Swallows perched in a small dead tree at eye level and 8 Black-tailed Native Hens.

At one of the lakes we saw several Emus with both Red and Western Grey Kangaroos drinking beside the lake. We saw what I thought might have been a large Wombat lying on dry mud beside the lake and only got the back view of it. Having not seen a Wombat before, David was keen to have a closer look. Upon David getting closer to it, the beast woke up and took off in a hurry, with David very surprised as it turned out to be one of a few Wild Pigs attracted to the water.

After making a brief visit to the Pub at Menindee where Bourke and Wills had stayed, we then drove up to Mootwingee. On our way I saw 2 male Redthroats beside the road among more Wedgebills and Chestnut-crowned Babblers.

Just a few kilometres up the road, we stopped at an area of Bluebush and played the call of the Rufous Fieldwren (Calamanthus). One popped up in no time and came rushing towards us and walking a few metres in front of us. It later climbed one of the bushes and started to sing. In response, a Redthroat was seen and started to call on top of another bush as if it had some competition with the Fieldwren. Further on we saw several Crimson Chats, Banded Lapwings, 3 Australian Pratincoles and a Black Falcon perched on the ground beside the road, only a couple of metres from the car. The falcon was, unusually, quite approachable. We also saw a group of no less than 6 Wedge-tailed Eagles sharing a kangaroo carcass beside this stretch of road.

Upon the arrival at Mootwingee National Park that night, we were constantly mobbed by a swarm of insects attracted to us and our torch light as we set up our tents. There were insects of every type - moths, beetles, dragonflies, mozzies and 10 inch stick insects. This was the most unpleasant night of the trip, and neither of us had such an encounter of this swarm of insects in our life. Just when we were just about to doze off in our tents, a storm soon brewed with fierce winds, fearing that both of our tents would be blown away but fortunately didn't.

Day 11 - 11th November 1998 (Mootwingee NP)

The morning started off fairly fine and we started off early in our search for the Halls Babblers supposedly found in the area about Homestead Creek Gorge. I saw a small number of Little Woodswallows flying about and perching in trees and saw both Chestnut-crowned and White-browed Babblers but not any Halls Babblers. We saw a pair of Peregrine Falcons calling from the cliffs as if trying to distract us away. The female made short circular flights as it called, meaning that it may have been defending its nest area.

Quite soon and unexpected the rain came and set in, and we spent a few hours walking in the rain. We soon found that we unexpectedly chose one of the most challenging walks. Unexpectedly, we had to abseil down a cliff and walk through narrow gorges with water below.

On arrival back to the camping spot, we confronted two rangers who gave us the news that all roads to Mootwingee were cut off with last nights rain, and we were stranded in the park. They said that anyone who attempted to leave the area would risk a fine of about $4000. We knew that such a fine and the expected road conditions would not be worth it. This however then allowed me another opportunity to look for the Halls Babbler. One of the two rangers told me that he had seen the Halls Babbler on the Western Ridge. I did go looking in that area later, but unfortunately I had no luck again in finding it, and that despite a long walk on the ridge. It was a tick that we should have deserved, as we walked along most of the ridge tops in that area through habitat favoured by this Babbler.

Day 12 - 12th November 1998 (Mootwingee NP - Cobar)

We hoped that we could leave the area that morning, as more rain could make us stranded for several days, and the heavy clouds looked quite threatening. Near the campsite that morning, I saw a group of 6 Pink Cockatoos fly over as well as some Diamond Doves and a lone Budgerigar.

Soon that morning, we were given the all clear to leave, and in no time we were on our way back on the bitumen. On our way back, we saw 3 Black Falcons perched alongside the road (all quite approachable at a reasonable distance) and a male Orange Chat.

After driving back to Broken Hill, we decided to head for Cobar. As David wanted to take a road side nap beside the road in an area between Broken Hill and Wilcannia, I got out of the car and investigated the bird activity. I saw large numbers of over 100 Crimson Chats over the hillside, together with lots of other small birds, hundreds of Woodswallows, Wedgebills and Chestnut-crowned Babblers.

After passing through Wilcannia, we approached the Talyawalka flood plain, which was really flooded a full of birds. Here we saw hundreds of Black-tailed Native Hens with lots of chicks running along and beside the road with the adults, a pair of Freckled Ducks, several Pink-eared Ducks and Teal with young (the former ducklings had bills reminiscent to their parents), 2 Red-necked Avocets and several Whiskered Terns.

After 500 km of driving that day, we finally made it to Cobar.

Day 13 - 13th November 1998 (Cobar - Forbes)

Spent the morning looking for Chestnut-breasted Quail-thrushes beside the town's waste depot there in Mulga woodland with stony ground. These birds have been seen there in the past but unfortunately did not show up for us. However, we did great views of Spotted Bowerbirds that came to us rather than vice versa.

After lunch, we decided to make another visit to Round Hill to get 2 birds that we missed previously, both the Grey-fronted Honeyeater and Red-lored Whistler, but unfortunately could not find. We did however find a large flock of more than 300 Budgerigars feeding beside the road north of Mount Hope. A Peregrine was also seen snatching a dead one from the middle of the road as we were watching the live ones.

On our way to Forbes, and passing Lake Cargelligo, we saw a pair of Spotted Harriers fly over the road.

Day 14 - 14th November 1998 (Forbes - Sydney)

We made a brief visit to Gum Swamp, just out of Forbes with a male Blue-billed Duck seen briefly, a Darter feeding 2 chicks on its nest, very close up views of Pink-eared Ducks and their ducklings from the bird hide, a pair of White-bellied Sea-eagles and a hundreds of nesting Pacific (White-necked) Herons with some fledged young.

Upon arriving back at home, the most exciting part of the trip arrived - washing the car.

Overall, we travelled a distance of more than 5700 kilometres, covering a lot of NSW's west, north-west VIC and south-east SA. And had an enjoyable and relatively safe birding trip with a good touch of adventure.

I thank everyone who provided me with information for this trip. I have found all the information given to me to be very helpful.

Until the next big adventure....

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This page served with permission of the author by Urs Geiser;; July 19, 1999