Western Australia part 4: Derby to Kununurra: 21st to 24th September 2017.   Leave a comment

This is the fourth (of five) blog posts about my tour of Western Australia, in addition there is a post on Christmas Island which was offered as a pre-tour extension.

The post covers our journey along the Gibb River Road from the town of Derby (close to Broome) to Kununurra near the state border with the Northern Territory.

 

As I mentioned before all of the journey was on dirt roads, this was particularly tricky if you were in the second vehicle and were driving into the sun (as we were driving to the north-east this occurred in the morning).

 

Guess which vehicle was in the lead and which was following!

 

We had spent much of the morning birding in the Derby area so the afternoon was taken up with the long drive to Mt Elizabeth Station. We arrived at 1700 so there was only a short time to had time for bird around the guest chalets, but we did see a number of Agile Wallabies ….

 

…. and Black-faced Woodswallows.

 

The following morning near the Station we saw our first Silver-backed Butcherbirds. Formerly lumped with Grey Butcherbird which replaces it to the south, this species is actually more closely related to Black-backed Butcherbird of New Guinea and the Australia’s Cape York Peninsula.

 

We birded along the Gibb River Road the following morning and then turned north on the Gibb River-Kalumburu Road. We arrived at our accommodation at Drysdale River Station mid-afternoon (a ranch of a mere million acres) but didn’t stay long as we had some birding to do at a nearby billabong ….

 

…. but the sign that greeted us as we left didn’t fill us with confidence!

 

The partially dried up river bed (or billabong ) was a great place to bird.

 

The water levels were low but marks on a tree by the river bed reminded up of just how high the flood water can reach.

 

The area was home to several species of kingfisher, Sacred ….

 

…. and the diminutive Azure.

 

Also during our travels in the north we came across a number of the enormous Blue-winged Kookaburras, one of the largest kingfishers in Australia.

 

Along the edge of the billabong we saw some Paperbark Flycatchers, a recent split from Restless Flycatcher and named after the paperbark trees of the northern woodlands.

 

Our main target was the exquisite Purple-crowned Fairy-wren a declining species that has become quite hard to find in recent years.

 

Crimson Finches …

 

… and Double-barred Finches enlivened the proceedings.

 

We stayed on till dusk …

 

…. and not only saw but were able to photograph a restless pair of Barking Owls.

 

The following day was one of the most exciting of the whole tour. We had been warned from the outset that there would be a very early start, but even so the announcement of a 0100 departure was a bit of a shock. We headed northwards bumping along the Gibbs River-Kalumburu Road in the dark. A few of the grou saw Spotted Nightjar on route and we all saw a female Bush Stone-curlew with two chicks in the middle of the track that she tried protect by hiding them under her wings. We arrived at the remote Mitchell Plateau just after 0500. I say remote, but there was a well-developed campsite and a helicopter service that took tourists to see a nearby waterfall. The area can become very hot and we were warned that we must not wander off on our own (as has happened in the past), drink lots of water and protect our skin. To get to this rocky outcrop was a bit of a scramble …

 

… but soon we reached level ground which afforded great views over the surrounding forest.

 

Our target birds fell one by one, the restricted range White-quilled Rock Pigeon …

 

… Kimberley Honeyeater, which is endemic to the Kimberley region …

 

… and the more widespread Sandstone Shrikethrush.

 

But the outstanding sighting, indeed the main reason for making the long drive through the night, was to see the diminutive and elusive Black Grasswren. The eleven species of grasswren (related to the fairy-wrens) are some of the most skulking of Australia’s birds, usually only affording brief views as they scuttle through the undergrowth. Most trips to the Mitchell Plateau just glimpse the bird as it runs from one rock to another but we had a pair out in the open singing and we saw it well long before the area heated up to it’s 40 plus degree norm.

 

Even the leader Andy, who had made this trip several times, had never seen them so well. It was not surprising that this was unanimously voted ‘bird of the trip’.

 

We spent a while overlooking the lake and scanning the distant horizon and saw some distant displaying Pacific Bazas and a number of cockatoos, but with all species except Partridge Pigeon (which I have seen before in NT) under the belt we left by 1020, hours earlier than on most previous tours.

 

The early return gave us plenty of chances to stop and bird on the way back. Rainbow Bee-eaters showed well …

 

… as did this singing Leaden Flycatcher.

 

White-throated Honeyeaters were no big surprise …

 

… but this was! We walked an area of dry eucalypt forest in the hope we might flush a Chestnut-backed Buttonquail. We didn’t flush a single one – but we found a group of six feeding out in the open. So good were the views of this normally mega elusive species (well mega-elusive family to be more precise) that it got voted number two ‘bird of the trip’.

 

We were back at Drysdale River Station by mid-afternoon. Some opted to rest after the extremely early start but the rest of us returned to the billabong where we saw much the same as the afternoon before.

 

One species we didn’t want to see was the infamous cane toad. The introduction of these toads to Australia has been described as the worst decision in the country’s history. Cane toads, native to the Neotropics were introduced to coastal Queensland in 1935 to control the native cane beetle which was damaging sugar cane production. Cane Toad numbers now exceed 200 million and have spread as far west as the Kimberley. They have failed to control cane beetles but due to their poisonous neck glands, which can clearly be seen in the photo, they have almost wiped out native predators like quolls, goannas and snakes and have killed many cats and dogs plus some humans who have inadvertently come into contact with their poison. They predate many smaller species and compete with others for food supplies. By killing goannas the number of crocodiles has risen due to reduced predation of their eggs and a huge decrease in dung beetles due to the toad has resulted in a massive increase in cow dung which may lead to disease outbreaks in cattle.  They are a classic example of the folly of introducing a predator into a region where the native wildlife has no natural defense against them.

 

So it was back to the chalets at Drysdale Station and an early night to catch up on sleep.

 

We heard from the staff at Drysdale Station that there were some recently arrived Oriental Plovers on their airstrip.

 

We also found a very dark falcon. Hopes that it was the rare Black Falcon (which would be a lifer for me) were soon squashed and it proved to be a dark example of the much commoner Brown Falcon.

 

The drive through the desert scrub was long and at times uncomfortable, but who would have expected a sign advertising scones, jam and cream out in this wilderness!

 

This area was populated with a number of boab trees, the name an Australian contraction of the African name baobab. This genus (of nine species) is found only in Africa and in particular in Madagascar. Probably evolved too recently to be a Gondwanaland relict, the species probably reached Australia as seeds in rafts of vegetation carried on sea currents.

 

More birds were seen on our journey, Sulphur-crested Cockatoos ….

 

…. and Red-tailed Black Cockatoos,, a bird that looks very like a Black Kite in flight.

 

A distant Brolga, a species of crane that largely avoided the photographers on this tour, was seen in this creek.

 

Here we found a group of Pictorella Mannikins, a new bird for me although they were hard to photograph well in the heat haze and glaring light.

 

Hardly surprisingly given the rough road conditions, we had a puncture. We then realised that sharp shale fragments had been used as a road dressing and this had caused the flat. We met several other vehicles all with the same problem along this stretch.

 

A river crossing had a few pools along its edge, home to this group of Magpie Geese. This species is so different from all other wildfowl that it’s in its own family.

 

Also by the river were a number of the gorgeous Spinifex Pigeons. This made it as number three ‘bird of the trip’ even surpassing the amazing Noisy Scrub-bird by one point.

 

Eventually we reached an open area with views across the Pentecost River flood plain towards Kununurra …

 

… and another hour or so of dirt road driving got us to the tarmac on the Wyndham – Kununurra highway, a route that will take you all the way to Katherine in the Northern territory if you wish.

 

We arrived at Kununurra just after dark for a three night stay. The past four days had been a bit tough on hot, dusty and bumpy roads (but I’ve known worse) but we had traversed some real wilderness and seen some great birds.

Our time around Kununurra, Lake Argyle and Wyndam will be the subject of the final post in this series.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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