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A seed collecting and birding visit to Cobar

Central West NSW

17 — 19 December 2016

With our hectic tour year over and the plains-wanderer season winding down and the outback still in the best condition it's seen for a while, my friend Brian Holden and I set out for Cobar in central west New South Wales, about 550 km north of Deniliquin. The primary purpose of the trip was to collect seed from some of the myriad tree and shrub species of the marvelous inland scrub of western NSW. But it wasn't all seed collecting; we actively sought birds in various locations.

17 December 2016
A hobby was the first bird of note observed about 10 km west of Hay, not far off the Murrumbidgee River. Our first seed collecting was along the Crow’s Nest Travelling Stock Route (TSR) north of Gunbar. This is one of best TSRs in NSW for diversity of plants and habitats. The varied habitats included boree, yarran and poplar box woodlands; mallee and belah country and open plains.

Several rare plants also occur along the TSR in this district. The only locality in the Riverina for Sturt’s desert pea, to my knowledge, is a short distance north of Gunbar. (However, I couldn't find it growing there on this occasion, despite good winter rains). About fifteen years ago I found an unnamed species of Leptorhynchos growing at the northern end of the TSR. Vulnerable and endangered bird species also occur on the TSR and over the years I have recorded grey falcon, Major Mitchell's and superb parrots here as well as diminishing species such as ground cuckoo-shrike, painted honeyeater, black honeyeater, white-browed treecreeper (in thick belah woodland), to name a few.

Today, the best bird we had was a spotted harrier. We also saw quite a few wedge-tailed eagles. We stopped briefly to search the boree woodland for painted honeyeater but none was forthcoming. This species seems to be increasingly rare in the Riverina, which is not surprising given that much of the mistletoe on which it feeds has died or has not been producing fruit due to years of below-average rainfall. We had our first seed-collecting stop along the TSR as I wanted to get yarran Acacia homalophylla seed. There are a few specimens of this species around Deniliquin but they never set seed so I’ve not been able to grow it. It would appear that the yarran around here also doesn’t set much seed unless it was just an anomalous year. We had to hunt about to find any seed at all. Most of what we found was also a bit green so may not be viable. There is much confusion as to how to tell the difference between Acacia homalophylla and the closely related Acacia melvillei, which were once regarded as conspecific. I have grown Acacia melvillei from seed collected over near Moulamein where the species is common. I believe the trees north of Gunbar to be Acacia homalophylla as what pods we could find were narrower and more pointed than Acacia melvillei and the seed is placed longitudinally in the pod rather than transverse as in Acacia melvillei.

We had three Major Mitchell's at our seed-collecting stop, feeding on cypress-pine seed. Our next stop was in the Matakana mallee north of Hillston. Various species of acacia seed were collected in this area. We encountered a nice group of yellow-plumed honeyeaters in the mallee, just north of Matakana. This species has become rare in this area since all the low rainfall years and it is years since I have seen them here. The black-capped subspecies of varied sittella was also seen here. The main reason I wanted to stop here was to check out a site where my friend Mick had found red-lored whistler about fifteen years ago. Why it has taken me a decade and a half to check out this important record, more or less in my own back yard, is anyone’s guess.

Varied sittella, black-capped subspecies Daphoenositta chrysoptera pileata

18 December 2016
Early the next morning we arrived at the red-lored locality a bit to the north of Matakana. We started our search in the mallee. It was rather quiet which is did not surprise me as this area has been badly knocked about with years of low rainfall. Still, the area is now having a brilliant season, the best for many years, and the mallee looks fantastic. All the mallee trees were covered in new growth and the ground was carpeted in yellow buttons. So we had ideal conditions to look for the critically endangered red-lored whister and see what other species were about. Initially we couldn't hear much at all but after the birds had had a feed they started to call. White-eared honeyeaters were the first birds seen, then we had a grey-fronted honeyeater, which is a bird I have only recorded occasionally this far south. Other birds of interest included a pair of shy heathwren, inland thornbill, brown goshawk and crested bellbird. Finally, we heard what I believed to be a red-lored whistler call, a single call, quite nearby but we were unable to find it. Such is the nature of this sometimes secretive bird. Interestingly, some of the calls of red-lored whistler in NSW are quite different to the calls of birds from south of the Murray River, with some calls being rather similar to Gilbert's whistler. We eventually gave up on the bird we heard and moved on. About half an hour later, another whistler called. I was not sure initially if it was Gilbert's or red-lored but as it came into view we saw all the rufous about the face and belly. It called for some time and came in close allowing photos and video. After a while a female joined the male. I think this is one of the few times I have ever seen male and female together or possibly the female at all for that matter as she is usually much shyer than the male.

Red-lored whistler
click on photo for video or go to

Feeling pretty pleased with ourselves, we set off exploring some tracks. There were big mobs of white-browed and masked woodswallows, often with scores of tree martins. I’ve never seen so many tree martins in mallee country. We heard chestnut quail-thrush call but it refused to be seen. We did manage to find a couple of immature Gilbert's whistlers a few kilometres from where we had seen the red-lored. I find it interesting that the habitat of the red-lored in NSW is quite different to birds south of the Murray. The NSW birds appear to be in more of a mixture of short and taller understory whereas south of the Murray it is more uniformly short (around 60 cm high). Some of the plants that commonly occurred around where we observed the pair at Matakana included mallee broombush Melaleuca uncinata and cactus pea Bossia walkeri. The broombush grows about two metres high while the cactus pea grows about a metre tall. The cactus pea does not occur at all south of the Murray. Also, there is very little triodia (spinifex) at the Matakana site, a species that is usually a feature of sites where red-lored whistler occurs south of the Murray. The mixture of low and tall understory at sites where this species occurs in NSW probably accounts for the fact that Gilbert's and red-lored whistlers are more likely to occur together in NSW than south of the Murray.

After lunch it was time to move on as we had seeds to collect. About Mt Hope we collected seed from the attractive Acacia deanei and north of Mt Hope collected our first mulga seed and seed from the beautiful Acacia decora. Also, north of Mt Hope we found a magnificent bower of a spotted bowerbird. The treasures in the bower consisted of green pittosporum berries and for metres around the bower, the whole area was decorated with quandong seeds, an array I’d never seen before.

Up towards Cobar we collected the seed of two of the most magnificent trees in the inland, the leopardwood Flindersia maculata and the ironwood Acacia excelsa.

Spotted bowerbird's bower decorated with pittosporum and quandong fruit

19 December
Next morning we headed out west of Cobar towards Wilcannia. We didn’t get far before we were seed collecting again. We collected from different leaf forms of mulga including one with a very broad, long sickle-shaped leaf  (broad-leafed mulga) and seed from more leopardwood trees. Further along the road, we stopped for the most magnificent wild orange Capparis mitchellii in full bloom. More Major Mitchell's were seen feeding on green acacia seeds, which proved to be Acacia oswaldii. The Mitchell's are very fond of the green seeds of this species. On the walk out to the acacia we encountered our one and only black honeyeater for the trip. Despite seeing much Eremophila longifolia in bloom there appears to be very few black honeyeaters in NSW at present. Also along here we collected the seed of another inland tree, the lovely whitewood Atalaya hemiglauca. About 80 km out, the country becomes more open and another type of yarran takes over. We collected the seed of this tree, which I believe to be Acacia melvillei so it seems both species have a very disjointed distribution in NSW. We turned off south, down the Barnato road heading towards Trida. Along this road, in belah county, we finally encountered our first couple of pairs of crimson chats — another incredibly scarce bird at present. East of Trida, we encountered another pair and that was it for the whole trip. Also in the belah county we had a single budgerigar. On the Barnato and the Trida roads, the county becomes more open and is covered in speargrass about a metre tall for as far as the eye could see. If a fire should start here on a bad day over summer there would be no stopping it. It would burn from Ivanhoe to Cobar in a very short time.

Just north of Trida we came upon the healthiest looking bladder saltbush county I have seen in a long while. It had lots of ptilotus growing in with it, which I think must have been regal foxtail Ptilotus nobilis. Also growing with it was a species of Mitchell grass, probably curly Mitchell grass Astrebla lappacea. It looked fantastic! East of Trida we again encountered what I believe to be Acacia melvillei further adding to the mystery of the distribution of these two very similar species of acacia. From Trida we cut back towards Hillston and here we encountered our second spotted harrier for the trip. On some of the floodwaters north of Hillston we saw flocks of glossy ibis, possibly from the breeding colony on Booligal Station (now owned by NPWS) as well as whiskered and gull-billed terns, buff-banded rail, pink-eared duck and hoary-headed grebe. We had a bite to eat on the Lachlan River at Hillston and made it back to Deniliquin just before midnight. This was a successful trip from both a seed-collecting and bird-finding perspective and no better way to have a bit of R & R!

Chyrsocephalum apiculatum


Philip Maher
Australian Ornithological Services Pty Ltd


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