Gulf of Carpentaria tour notes
14 — 27 May 2011


What a contrast this tour was compared to the last Gulf tour in 2008 when most of the Gulf was gripped by drought and birds and waterholes were not easy to find. This year water was everywhere, which can spread birds but we missed very little and got some nice surprises.

About Georgetown, creeks that are normally running dry by May were still flowing. The Karumba floodplain had vast areas under water, making the sarus cranes and brolgas less concentrated than they had been in ’08 but they were still seen regularly and often with young.

The grass in the Gulf country was up to five feet tall and would have been hiding a lot of bustards but we did see that noble bird most days of the trip.

Pictorella mannikins were widespread and encountered in many localities including places I’d never seen them before.  It is years since I’d seen Gouldian finches in Queensland so getting a small group northwest of Mt Isa was wonderful. We did well with finches and even managed the elusive plum-headeds west of Richmond.

The silver-leafed box Eucalyptus prunosa was not flowering this year so we didn’t encounter the good numbers of honeyeaters, lorikeets or great flocks of woodswallows that can sometimes be found feeding in these trees between Normanton and Burketown. Banded honeyeaters in particular were scarce. However, the flowering desert bloodwood, Corymbia terminalis did attract a few species.

Throughout the Gulf the redolently scented gidgee Acacia cambagei was blooming. When gidgee flowers, the air is pungent with a smell that defines the area. While not being everyone’s cup of tea, to me, it evokes the Australian outback. Also in blossom were Chisholm’s wattle Acacia chisholmii and Hill’s tabletop wattle Acacia hilliana around Cloncurry and Mt Isa, and north of Cloncurry, the net-veined wattle Acacia retivena.

The spinifex country about Cloncurry and Mt Isa was lush and creek lines, which would normally be waterholes by this stage, were still brimming. Painted finches and spinifex pigeons were in their old haunts.

Large areas of the spinifex had been burned over the year or two past, which made rufous-crowned emu-wrens, with their preference for mature spinifex, quite difficult to find. We did eventually enjoy good views of a couple of family groups.

We got some nice looks at the Kalkadoon grasswren at two locations. The Carpentarian grasswren was, as usual, unaccommodating except for one of the pair that we had followed for miles, appearing on a small termite mound in front of the vehicle while the group was having lunch. I was out scouting for this pair on my own at the time!

When the group and I returned to lunch, exhausted, we noticed that one of the hired 4WD had a flat tyre.  Do you think we, with our collective brainpower and decades, perhaps, even a combined century’s worth of tyre-changing expertise could get the flat tyre off? We even read the manual. The seldom-used satellite phone came out and roadside assistance was summoned to our location way down Lady Loretta mine road. The RACQ guy turned up, gave the tyre a short sharp kick and was gracious enough to suggest that it happens sometimes... It was later that day the gods smiled on us with a group of Goudian’s drinking at a waterhole and a bush stone-curlew.

The Mitchell grass plains from east of Cloncurry back to Hughenden had a good covering but it seemed that much of the perennial Mitchell grass had died out during the drought and replaced by the more annual Flinders’ grass.

Small macropods must be doing reasonably well in the Gulf although not so much the ones we saw — one spectacled hare-wallaby and two rufous bettongs that were roadkill, north of Hughenden.

This tour will be remembered for the number of big pythons encountered. Three large and handsome black-headed pythons were seen in widely dispersed locations and a water python crossed the road south of Karumba. Sadly there were a few roadkills as well. North of Hughenden, a large, almost black, python was soaking up some sunrays on a rock near a dam. This, I believe, was a particularly dark form of carpet python, a species that comes in a variety of colours throughout its extensive range. Another python roadkill of the same colour phase was seen not far away. Not a python, but what looked like a very dead, coiled, death adder was seen along the Gregory River.

With what I like to think of as raw natural talent, we went spotlighting on the Tablelands for (lesser) sooty owl on our last night and got one almost immediately sitting on a branch across a road. Others might call it dumb luck.

Notes on the more interesting species seen on the 2011 Gulf Country tour  14 to 27 May 2011

About fifteen birds including some immatures seen between the Gregory River and Burke and Wills’ Roadhouse. These are probably my most northern records in the Gulf country. About three seen between Cloncurry and Hughenden.

Brown quail
Widespread this year, quite a few coveys about Mt Isa and Cloncurry including some out in the dry country where I have not previously encountered them. Also east of Gregory Downs and between Julia Creek and Richmond.

Plumed whistling-duck
About one thousand birds on waterholes south of The Lynd and good numbers in the Georgetown/Karumba areas. Some breeding around Karumba recorded.

Cotton pygmy-goose
One bird was seen on Cumberland dam west of Georgetown.

Great crested grebe
At least three pairs with young were seen on the storage dam near the Burke and Wills’ Roadhouse; two birds on Cumberland Dam near Georgetown. 

Common bronzewing
Big numbers about the acacia scrub arounds Mt Isa and Cloncurry. Acacia seed is a major part of this species’ diet.

Flock bronzewing
No big numbers, only a scattering of small flocks seen. About twenty well out on the Karumba plain; about twenty in small groups coming in to water on the plains just east of Gregory Downs Hotel. None were seen this year on the Mitchell grass plains around Julia Creek.

Spinifex pigeon
Moderately common; a few groups south of Cloncurry and a large group of about forty birds along Lady Loretta road northwest of Mt Isa where I’ve not previously seen them.

Squatter pigeon
Three of the red-eyed race, two between Mt Garnett and Mt Surprise and another east of Croydon. About fifty of the blue-eyed and intermediate races seen between Hughenden and The Lynd.

Diamond dove
Big numbers were seen throughout the Gulf country; highest numbers about Augustus Downs.

Tawny frogmouth
One seen at Georgetown and about four seen on the Gregory River or nearby. The colouration and markings are quite distinct from southern birds.

Spotted nightjar
A few spotlighted on the roads at night around Gregory Downs.

Australian owlet-nightjar
Three on the road at night about Gregory Downs and two along Lady Loretta road, northwest of Mt Isa.

Darter and cormorants
About ten pairs of darters nesting in company with good numbers of little pied and little black cormorants in a flooded area between Croydon and Normanton. I have not encountered any of these species breeding in this area previously.

White-necked heron
Good numbers between Georgetown and Normanton including many immatures. Breeding has probably occurred in this area. Also quite a few on the Karumba plain and east of Gregory River.  The best numbers we have ever encountered in the Gulf.

Great egret
Big numbers between Croydon and Normanton; breeding has probably occurred in the area. Quite a few seen on the Karumba plain and a few seen elsewhere.

Pied heron
Good numbers about Karumba and Normanton far more than previously seen on this tour.

Nankeen night-heron
Breeding in the mangroves at Karumba with juvenile birds seen on the boat trip. Several were seen between Georgetown and Normanton.

Glossy ibis
Good numbers on the flood plain about Karumba.

Royal spoonbill
Good numbers on the flood plain about Karumba.

Black-shouldered kite
Moderately common, quite a few pairs scattered across the Gulf country. Eleven birds in total, while just two seen on the 2008 tour.

Square-tailed kite
Just three birds recorded. One at a river crossing west of Burke and Wills Roadhouse and a pair at the base of the Gillies Range near Gordonvale. None seen on the 2008 tour.

Black-breasted buzzard
Only four birds were seen, one sub-adult just west of Georgetown; one adult on the Karumba plains; one adult north of the Gregory Downs Hotel; and one immature west of the Burke and Wills Roadhouse. Two birds were seen in 2008.

Brown goshawk/collared sparrowhawk
Good numbers of both species seen throughout the tour in timbered areas, the brown goshawk being the more common species. This year thirteen brown goshawks and six collared sparrowhawks compared with ten brown goshawks and nine collared sparrowhawks in 2008.

Grey goshawk
A grey phase bird was seen on the tablelands on the last day of the tour. In Cairns, prior to the tour starting, a bird was seen hunting in palm trees at the northern end of the esplanade at dusk.

Spotted harrier
Eight birds were seen. Three immature birds on the Karumba plains; one adult near Augustus Downs; one adult south of Cloncurry; a single and a pair of adults west of Richmond (possibly breeding). Seven birds were seen in 2008.

Swamp harrier
Just a single bird was seen on the Karumba plain.

Wedge-tailed eagle
Moderate numbers scattered throughout the Gulf Country. The best numbers west of Georgetown and north of Hughenden. Fifty-two in total compared to fifty-five seen in 2008.

Little eagle
Just two birds seen, one south of Cloncurry and another near the Flinders River at Richmond. Four birds were seen in 2008.

Brown falcon
Moderate numbers seen throughout the Gulf. Highest count was about fifty on the Mitchell grass plains west of Julia Creek to Hughenden.

Australian hobby
Scarce. Only two birds were seen, one in Cairns and the other in Cloncurry.

Black falcon
Just a single bird was seen west of Richmond.

Sarus crane
Several pairs were seen, most with juvenile young, all on the Karumba plain. Assumedly, much more widely spread this year due to the long wet season. One hundred and seventy birds were seen in 2008.

Good numbers seen over a wide area; most pairs with large juvenile young. About one hundred and fifty birds seen compared to around six hundred and sixty in 2008.

Buff-banded rail
A pair with juvenile young just south of Karumba and a single bird at Lake Moondara were seen; and a few on the Atherton Tablelands where this species is common.

Spotless crake
One bird heard calling in cumbungi near Lake Moondara; my first record ever for this tour.

Australian bustard
A few seen on most days of the tour; most numerous about the Gregory River area; a couple of big males seen south of Cloncurry; male and two females north of Hughenden, possibly mating. It is uncommon to see both sexes together.

Little button-quail
A few in the spinifex country about Cloncurry and Mt Isa, one on the Mitchell grass plains west of Richmond. 

Bush stone-curlew
One on the Lady Loretta Rd northwest of Mt Isa was a first for this area for this tour; a few on the Atherton Tablelands were this species is common. Fresh tracks were seen near the Gregory River.

Banded lapwing
A single bird was seen between Normanton and Burketown; possibly our most northern record for the Gulf tour.

Masked lapwing
Some intermediate-race birds seen around Mt Isa.

Australian pratincole
A couple of hundred birds on the Karumba plain and another couple of hundred for a stretch of about twenty kilometres of highway west of Julia Creek.

There were hundreds about Augustus Downs and between the Gregory River and the Burke and Wills’ Roadhouse. Low numbers recorded from Mt Isa to Hughenden.

Rainbow lorikeet (red-collared form)
Just a few of the red-collared form were seen on the Gregory River.

Varied lorikeet
Good numbers along the Gregory River and between Gregory River and the Burke and Wills’ Roadhouse and also about Cloncurry and Mt Isa.

Flocks were seen most days from the Gregory River to Mt Isa and east to Hughenden.

Pheasant coucal
Much more widespread this year; several seen south of Cloncurry and Mt isa, where not seen previously. Fifteen were seen this year, two in 2008.

Channel-billed cuckoo
One was seen in the mangroves at the north end of the Cairns’ esplanade and another on the Gregory River where this species overwinters.

Pallid cuckoo
Singles between Normanton and Augustus Downs and along the Gregory River.

Horsfield’s bronze-cuckoo
A few between Normanton and Augustus Downs; singles about the Gregory River and south Of Cloncurry.

Barking owl
A pair was seen on the Flinders River east of Gregory River Hotel.

(Lesser) Sooty owl
One adult seen at night on the Atherton Tablelands

Azure kingfisher
Just a single bird seen on the Gregory River.

Little kingfisher
One bird seen at Centennial Lakes in Cairns.

Red-backed kingfisher
Widespread in low numbers; a few seen on most days; highest numbers west of Georgetown and southwest of Cloncurry.

Brown treecreeper
Several pairs of the race melanota seen west of Georgetown.

Black-tailed treecreeper
Several pairs seen south and north of Mt Isa and south of Cloncurry.

Purple-crowned fairy-wren
About five groups seen along the Gregory River; one group, at least, were feeding dependent young.

Rufous-crowned emu-wren
Rather scarce. Three groups seen over two days in spinifex country south of Cloncurry. One group, at least, feeding recently fledged young.

Carpentarian grasswren
One pair located on the Lady Loretta road, northwest of Mt Isa. Rather timid as is the nature of this species.

Kalkadoon grasswren
A group of about four seen in the hills southeast of Mt Isa and another pair seen on the outskirts of Mt Isa.

Fairy gerygone
A pair was seen southwest of Mt Garnett, at the Forty Mile Scrub.

White-throated gerygone
One between Mt Garnett and Georgetown and two seen west of Normanton; and also calling east of Gregory Downs.

Yellow-rumped thornbill
A couple of small parties near Duchess, southeast of Mt Isa.

Red-browed pardalote
Moderately common about Mt Isa and Cloncurry.

Grey-fronted honeyeater
Moderately common in the hills about Mt Isa and Cloncurry. A pair was observed feeding fledged young along Lady Loretta road.

Spiny-cheeked honeyeater
About ten southwest of Cloncurry that appeared to be migrating; a couple west of Richmond and around ten north of Hughenden.

Crimson chat
Several flocks south of Cloncurry and Mt Isa and just a few east of Julia Creek. This species was seen on just three days of the tour, whereas in 2008, at the peak of the drought down south, we recorded several hundred crimson chats over nine days, including some almost to the coast.

Banded honeyeater
Very scarce, just two birds east of the Gregory River, no flowers on the silver-leafed box. Four birds recorded on the 2008 tour.

Black-chinned honeyeater
Moderately common and widespread this year. Localities included Croydon, Gregory River, Cloncurry and Mt Isa areas. Seen on six days as opposed to two in 2008.

Silver-crowned friarbird
A few birds seen and heard about Lake Moondara, Mt Isa.

Varied sittella
Just one group of the white-winged form that put on a marvelous display near the Gregory River and one group of the striated form between Mt Surprise and Georgetown.

Ground cuckoo-shrike
About six or seven parties seen over a wide area from east of the Gregory River, south of Cloncurry and Mt Isa to the Mitchell grass plains about Julia Creek and Richmond. Most seemed to be on their way somewhere. Our best views were of a pair in burnt spinifex country near Lake Moondara. A single bird was seen in 2008.

White-winged triller
Common and widespread; big flocks seen east of Gregory River.

Mangrove golden whistler
Just a single female in the mangroves at Karumba.

White-breasted whistler
Three seen in the mangroves at Karumba.

Crested bellbird
Several birds seen south of Cloncurry and Mt Isa and along Lady Loretta road, north of Mt Isa.

White-breasted woodswallow
Common and widespread, good numbers seen over twelve days. In 2008 just three birds were seen on a single day.

Masked woodswallow
Low numbers with white-browed woodswallows; seen on the Karumba plains and near Augustus Downs.

White-browed woodswallow
Flocks seen over three days — Karumba plain, Augustus Downs and the Gregory River; only numerous about Augustus Downs. White-browed was less numerous than masked in 2008.

Little woodswallow
Quite scarce this year; only seen on two days — around Croydon and north of Mt Isa.

Mangrove grey fantail
A pair in the mangroves at Karumba

Northern fantail
A single bird on the Gregory River.

Arafura fantail
A single bird seen in the mangroves at Karumba; a first for this tour.

Broad-billed flycatcher
Two birds seen in the mangroves at Karumba — a first for this tour.

White-eared monarch
A single immature bird seen at the Forty Mile Scrub NP.

Red-capped robin
A single bird was seen west of Georgetown.

Hooded robin
A pair seen on the Lady Loretta road north of Mt Isa.

Buff-sided robin
About four seen along the Gregory River.

Horsfield’s bushlark
A few on the grassy plains from Karumba to the Gregory River and also on the Mitchell grass plains about Julia Creek.

Rufous songlark
Good numbers about Georgetown and Croydon and from Gregory Downs to Cloncurry and Mt Isa; also about Julia Creek, Richmond and Hughenden. Seen on seven days, while only two in 2008.

Brown songlark
Just a scattering across the grassy plains; most numerous between Normanton and Augustus Downs. Surprisingly uncommon on the Mitchell grass plains about Julia Creek and Richmond.

Moderately common in the spinifex country about Cloncurry and Mt Isa. About fifteen birds in total seen as opposed to three in 2008.

Fairy martin
Big numbers about the Gregory River and east of the Burke and Wills’ Roadhouse where they appeared to be breeding in culverts. Also numerous on the Mitchell grass plains about Julia Creek and Richmond.

Long-tailed finch
About fifty near the Gregory River and a single bird near Lake Moondara.

Black-throated finch
About thirty of the black-rumped form near Cumberland dam near Georgetown.

Masked finch
About ten birds of the white-eared form near Cumberland Dam, Georgetown and about four of the brown-eared form near the Gregory River.

Star finch
About thirty adults and juveniles were seen drinking at a small waterhole near Karumba.

Plum-headed finch
Around ten adults and juveniles were seen at a waterhole west of Richmond.

Painted finch
Reasonable numbers seen in spinifex country south of Cloncurry. Also along Lady Loretta road north of Mt Isa. A few about Mt Isa. Most birds appeared to be adults.

Gouldian finch
It has been over twenty years since I have seen this species in Queensland. We were delighted to see four adults and about ten juveniles drinking at a waterhole along Lady Loretta road.  22 May 2011.

Pictorella Mannikin
Moderately common and widespread; seen in many locations where I have not seen them previously. Localities included Normanton to Augustus Down, Gregory Downs to Burke and Wills’ roadhouse, southwest of Cloncurry, Lady Loretta road, Lake Moondarra, Julia Creek and Richmond. Mainly adults seen and not in big flocks, perhaps indicating that little breeding had as yet occurred. Seen on six days and only on one day in 2008.

check list of all species seen Gulf Country 2011

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