Birding news from the Deniliquin area

Philip Maher

June 2002
May 2003

The last twelve months have been extraordinary with so many unusual movements of birds brought about by two years of drought. In what seems like a running theme with these Latest News updates, the district is probably the driest it has been since 1967. We would need to go back to the early 1940s to find two similar dry years over such a large part of Australia. Possibly we've seen a one in fifty year occurrence, assuming that it will rain this year. Although we have recently had one good fall of rain, the drought is far from over in the Riverina.

I suspect the reason for so many unusual records is simply that this is the first major drought since European settlement when there's been a large numbers of birders scattered around Australia observing movements.

Deniliquin area
Nectar feeders were well and truly on the move in 2002 with no flowering in the foothill forests or the inland. Evidence of this was an unprecedented influx of musk lorikeets into the district during the autumn and winter of that year. They were mostly feeding on exotic eucalypts in town, with lesser numbers scattered around the district in eucalypt plantations and farmhouses. They stayed about town in flocks of thirty or so until October — since then not one single bird has been seen. A little lorikeet was also recorded with the musks during that period. So all three species of small lorikeets were recorded during 2002. (There was a purple-crowned lorikeet seen earlier in the year, see previous Update)

On 12 June 2002, a single adult rainbow lorikeet was seen feeding, expertly, on the flowers of Eremophilia longifolia in my garden and chasing away noisy friarbirds. Its behaviour gave me no reason to think it other than a wild bird. This is the first definite record of the species in the district.

Fuscous, white-fronted and yellow-plumed honeyeaters started showing up in May and June from the foothill forests and further inland. The fuscous and yellow-plumed hung around town til about September while the white-fronteds were present in the district for most of winter, spring and summer. The white-fronteds at first were feeding in exotic eucalypt plantations and in flowering grey mistletoe Amyema quandong, and then in January and February were feeding on slender-leaf mistletoe Amyema linophyllum growing on bulloak Casuarina luehmannii north-east of Deniliquin, and in the Boorooban area.

An exceptional record in early January was a single male scarlet honeyeater, again feeding in slender-leaf mistletoe north-east of Deniliquin. It was seen on one occasion by Tom Wheller and Mark Sanders and Mark's partner Alison. This is only the second record of which I'm aware, the previous being a single bird recorded at Ulupna Island on the Murray River (near Tocumwal) by Bill Labbitt at a similar time of year about five years ago.

Black honeyeaters started showing up in late September and were recorded regularly at various locations up until early January. My last record was a single female in an Eremophilia longifolia in my garden, staying three days in early February. Mostly the black honeyeaters fed on E. longifolia in the district, although being so dry the eremophilias didn't flower well. At times they also fed in exotic eucalypts, flowering grey mistletoe and narrow leaf mistletoe. The males were doing their breeding song in a paddock of bulloak for some weeks but breeding was never confirmed. There have only been a couple of years in the last twenty-five when they have bred in the district.

Exceptional numbers of pied honeyeaters were also present in the district over summer. The first birds started showing up mid to late September in planted Eremophilia spp. in a homestead garden on the plains north of Wanganella. By early November they were in significant numbers, peaking at 20 birds in mid December in a small clump of E. longifolia east of Deniliquin. Most had departed the district by late December. When they first arrived in this clump they were feeding with the black honeyeaters but as the pied honeyeaters' numbers increased, the tiny black honeyeaters were relegated to the lower end of the honeyeater pecking order. My last record of pied honeyeater was a flock of 10 birds feeding on Ragodia spinescens berries in boree country south of Wanganella on 21 February 2003. I suspect that these latter birds were migrating back from whence they came as there had been some rain in the inland about that time. Only a few pied honeyeaters had ever been recorded in this district in the last twenty-five years and those records also coincided with drought inland. Given the magnitude of the present drought, I doubt that I will see pied honeyeaters in these numbers in this district again in my lifetime.

The first painted honeyeater for the season was recorded on 29 October in boree Acacia pendula country east of town, a location I had not recorded them previously. A few more turned up at two localities east and north of town in late November and early December. The pair north of town were incubating eggs on 9 December and successfully raised young; however, this is the only pair that I'm aware of that actually bred. More birds tuned up at the same spot, north of town, in January but many of these were immatures, which presumedly had been bred further north. About three or four pairs were present in roadside boree east of town and although they were calling and chasing each other around during December, I don't believe they bred here. They departed in early February 2003 and the last sighting for the season was about six immatures north of town on 24 March 2003. Overall, these are the highest numbers of painted honeyeaters seen in the vicinity of Deniliquin for many years.

Red wattlebirds were also about the town in unprecedented numbers over summer and autumn with 15–20 seen around from December to March.

Gilberts whistler were also on the move with an immature recorded in a roadside plantation on the Conargo Road, 7 September 2002 — my first record for this side of town. Despite the drought at least two pairs managed to breed successfully in Gulpa Island State Forest in October and November. However, some of the other pairs in this area went missing and as the summer became hotter and drier in January and February, the two pairs that had bred became difficult to locate and at the time of writing (8 May), they seem to have disappeared completely. Hopefully they will return to their old haunts when the rains come.

One of the things that amazed me most about the drought was the number of species that successfully bred. Nearly all the passerines in the district appeared to successfully raise young, although whether the young survived the summer is another matter. And they probably only raised one brood rather than the usual multiple clutches. Waterbirds were a complete write-off with virtually nothing breeding anywhere in the Murray/Darling system for the second year in a row.

Other species that did not breed included stubble quail, brown songlark, singing bushlark, white-winged triller and rufous songlark, with only a handful of the latter seen all summer.

Cuckoos have been scarce with just a few pallid and Horsfield's bronze cuckoos seen over spring and summer; while a few black-eared cuckoos moved through the district in September and January.

Surprisingly, superb parrots bred quite well in Gulpa Island this season. On 21 December at least 100 adults and juveniles were feeding on lerp in yellow box on a travelling stock route (TSR) south-east of Deniliquin. The importance of remnant vegetation on the TSRs was highlighted yet again with the Hill Plain TSR near Gulpa sustaining a good proportion of the breeding population of superbs through the spring. The birds were feeding on the seeds of bottle fissure weed Mairearna excavata growing in an area of open plain. After breeding, at least some of the superbs headed for the boree country north of Pretty Pine (again a TSR) where they fed on grey mistletoe fruits, Ragodia spinescens fruits and buckbush Salsola kali seeds and creeping saltbush Atriplex semibaccata fruits. It was gratifying to see superbs feeding on green Acacia acinacea seed pods late November in an area of State Forest (SF) that has been replanted (since 1996) with local native plants near Gulpa.

Testament to the hot, dry conditions, about fifty adult and juvenile superbs came to drink at a water trough at a farm gate south-east of town in early January. This species rarely drinks as it usually obtains its moisture requirements from its food supply.

Blue-winged parrots were late heading south last spring with pairs sighted east of town in late October. There were quite a few sightings on their return to the Wanganella plains during March, April and May this year.

My first sighting of swift parrot in this district for many years was on 20 September with a flock of about 15 in a plantation of exotic eucalypts east of town, however they only stayed a couple of days.

Also in September, I had my first sighting of mallee ringneck south of Billabong Creek — a single bird seen in yellow box Eucalytus melliodora country on the Conargo Road. A population once existed in the Mayrung, Blighty and Tuppal areas but these have died out with the last sighting in the Tuppal area in the 1980s. The closest surviving population to Deniliquin is north of Billabong Creek in the pine ridges and boree country between Boorooban and Steam Plains.

The drought produced some huge feeding congregations of long-billed corellas with an estimated 10,000 birds feeding on small-flowered onion gass Romulea minutiflora north of Pretty Pine on 14 September. They were spread over several kilometres and looked like milk spilt across the plains.

My first sighting of square-tailed kite in the district for over 10 years occurred 28 October in the Gulpa Island SF; it was only seen on the one occasion.

With the drought forcing them in off the plains, black falcons have been prevalent over summer at the rubbish tip and around the town and the irrigation country east of town. On two occasions in August and September they were seen pirating mice from little ravens and black kites. The ravens and kites were catching mice from around farm machinery in operation.

Bitterns have been scarce over spring and summer with the first two Australasians seen on 13 August. A few were seen sporadically over the next few months but with all the swamps dry and virtually no rice crops they had no where to feed. After doing it so tough over last summer, it will be interesting to see what sort of numbers are around next season. Little bitterns were also scarce with a couple recorded east of town on 28 November. At least one of these birds, an immature, hung around most of the summer, being last recorded on 9 February.

Freckled ducks were about in good numbers over spring/summer with up to 18 on a pond in the Blighty area from August until November when the pond dried up. A maximum of 25 was present on the Deniliquin sewage treatment works (STW) on 14 January, the highest ever recorded at that locality.

January and February saw my first records in over 20 years of red-necked avocet in the Wanganella area and in a couple of irrigation swamps east of town, again testament to the impact of the drought.

Four wood sandpipers seen east of Deniliquin on 7 March were my first records for several years, while a curlew sandpiper was recorded at the same locality on 15 February and was my first record of this species east of Deniliquin.

Plumed whistle-ducks continue to be scarce, with just two records over summer — a single bird seen at the Finley lake on 1 October and four birds on a water storage east of Deniliquin on 15 February.

On 5 May this year 20 brolgas were recorded near 8 Mile Creek in the Wanganella area. This great sighting was by far the most I have ever seen in the district. Presumedly these birds came from the north as there's been over 100 seen near Leeton recently. Usually there is just a pair that hangs out near Wanganella during the winter months, sometimes staying around to make an attempt to nest in the spring.

The swamp at Wanganella also produced a few waders over summer with a pectoral and a curlew sandpiper on 18 December and a red-capped plover on 21 January — again all first records for the area in 20 years.

Also on the move over summer were white-breasted sea-eagles, which were seen on several occasions around Deniliquin; an immature seen regularly at Wanganella swamps; and another seen near Boorooban on the Hay Plain.

A large area of box woodland west of Pretty Pine sustained a good population of painted button-quail through the drought. At least two adult males with chicks were seen in December and January. This area, as far as I know, had the only colony of white-browed woodswallows that bred in the district over summer. A memorable sighting in this area was 21 white-backed swallows coming in to roost in their nest holes in a disused gravel pit at dusk on 29 January.

Tullakool evaporative basin
Although large numbers of waders were present on the basin over summer and into autumn, no rarities were recorded. Notable were the large concentrations of red-necked avocets with over 1000 present for most of the summer. Adding to the spectacle were several hundred banded stilts, sometimes feeding with the avocets. In early March a few double-banded dotterels began to arrive, which is a regular occurrence most years. Over a 1000 red-necked stints were also present in early March.

Plains country north of Wanganella
This past spring ad summer produced the largest influx of orange chats to have occurred for at least 25 years. They started showing up in good numbers in late September with flocks of 20 to 30 birds being encountered in paddocks containing good stands of cottonbush Maireana aphylla or similar vegetation. At least some of these birds bred in the area. They stayed around well into summer although there was considerable movement within the district. In the heatwave conditions in January, many took refuge around the swamps, south of Wanganella. During February they really started moving and a small flock was seen east of Deniliquin, my first ever on that side of town. There was some thunderstorm activity in the inland during February and they appear to have departed the area at that time; my last record being 16 February. At the peak of the irruption birds were recorded at Jerilderie, Tullakool and Noorong indicating how widespread they were in the district.

Inland dotterels have now been in the Wanganella district for at least three years without a break — an unprecedented occurrence in my experience. They reached the peak of their numbers this season in the Wanganella area in August with around 50 birds seen in two paddocks. After that they were widespread in smaller numbers and moved about quite a bit as the plains became barer and more suitable for them. They bred early due to the dry conditions with birds on eggs in early August and continued breeding through September and October and into November with nests or young seen on several occasions.

Likewise, the banded lapwings bred early as is their way, with around 10 nests seen on 18 August. Thereafter, they were around in big flocks all through summer until thunderstorm rains to the north dispersed them in late February. Since then they have become scarce with just a few pairs remaining in the district. Because they had so much bare country in which to disperse, the huge flocks seen over the previous two summers didn't occur.

Australian pratincoles were on the plains in good numbers. The first birds returned in late September and they nested almost immediately with eggs seen early October. At least six pairs bred successfully. For the same reason as given for the banded lapwings, the pratincoles' numbers, were down on the previous two years. They departed much earlier than usual, presumedly because they nested much earlier. The last birds were seen on 3 January when usually they stay well into February.

Conversely, plains-wanderers have been doing it tough over summer with large areas of the riverine plain becoming too bare for them. Still, they are resilient and some at least have moved to paddocks that have some grass cover — paddocks that normally are a bit dense for them. They also managed to breed in some of these paddocks that had slightly more rain. A mating pair was seen during the day in cottonbush country on 4 October. It is a rare event to actually see this species during the day even though it is diurnal. They are a little less wary at mating time. An adult male with one large chick was seen on 9 December and quite a few immatures were seen around this time. These were probably the result of breeding events back in August/September. Surprisingly, an adult male was found with small chicks on 12 April, which must have nested after rain in mid March. They had become scarce in March and April so it was good to find one breeding. It will be interesting to see how quickly they can build up their numbers and recolonise old haunts, which at present are way too bare for them. It is pure conjecture but I imagine that numbers are probably as low at the moment as they have been since the 1967 drought and perhaps even the great droughts of the early 1940s. I can see some long nights coming up in the next 12 months!

A sighting of spotted nightjar at dusk on 9 December was the first I have seen personally on the riverine plain for around 20 years. There was at least one other sighting in the Boorooban area over summer and I located a few feathers of what must have been this species on a sandhill on the Conargo Rd in late summer.

At least one group of ground cuckoo-shrike frequented the plains north of Wanganella over summer. However, as far as we know they did not breed. As they were very mobile and covered a huge area it made it difficult to pin them down. A couple of groups were seen in irrigation country east of town in the autumn but they did not stay long.

The arrival of six or so letter-wing kites in November was a welcome addition to the local avifauna. They stayed for most of November but started moving about in December and January with one reappearing occasionally. Then in late February we relocated a pair that seemed to have settled in. They have since been joined by a third bird and were still present on 5 May. As there is very few house mice in the area at the moment, it is presumed that they are living mainly on fat-tailed dunnarts Sminthopsis crassicaudata of which there is a good population on the plains at present. Apart from a single bird seen in 2000, these are the first letter-wings to frequent the riverine plain since the 1993–1994 mouse plague.

Mammals and reptiles
With the plains being so bare and long hours spent spotlighting for plains-wanderers, it was on the cards that one of our tiniest marsupials would be recorded. A planigale was seen on two occasions in March and April, most probably narrow-nosed planigale Planigale tenuirostris.

The aforementioned fat-tailed dunnarts were about in good numbers over summer with 10–15 seen in a night on several occasions.

Curl snakes Suta suta were also seen on quite a few occasions, again due to the bare nature of the plains over summer.

previous Latest News 2001-2002