Arid Zone Birding in Outback Australia


Sturt National Park is one of many areas in the arid zone that are experiencing a boost from last year’s torrential rains in the north - rains that have steadily flooded and transformed central Australia.

Sturt National Park is in the top north-west corner of New South Wales, very close to the junction of the three states at Cameron Corner. It’s an isolated part of the world and the closest town is Tibooburra, that has the distinction of being the hottest place in Australia during the summer months. Best time to visit this National Park is in winter, between June and August.

Australia’s outback heritage

Last year much of the stony red and brown gibber plains of this area of the northern Strezlecki desert was covered in golden Mitchell grass and the subtle colours of blue-bush, salt-bush and copperburr vegetation.

 

As well as a good place for arid zone bird watching, this area is full of relics from Australia’s outback farming heritage, and an open air museum at Mt Wood is one of the highlights of the visit there.

The vast flat landscapes and arid hills of Mt Wood in Sturt National Park, had not looked so good for more than a decade when we visited, and the birds were increasing with many species not seen in recent years now present.

Some resident species such as Budgerigars, Little Corellas, and Black Kites, responded to the good conditions with early breeding while other species seldom seen in the arid zone were attracted to the area by the new sources of food.

More than 100 bird species

This past winter at Sturt there were more than 100 species of birds, including the elusive Cinnamon Quail-Thrush, small numbers of Flock Bronzewings, groups of both White-winged and Variegated Fairy Wrens, Red-backed and Sacred Kingfishers, and a lone Pink-eared Duck on one of the dams with a flock of Plumed Whistling Ducks. Brown Quail were also encountered at Mt Wood for the first time.

Mt Wood is one of four former stations, (the other three are Olive Downs, Whitta Brinna and Fort Grey), that make up Sturt National Park. Mt Wood has a ranger base beside the former station homestead (available for bookings), a shearers’ quarters (for group stays), a former shearing shed and the Open Air Pastoral Museum, just along the road.

Raptors in the park

Raptors were well represented at Sturt, including the infamously elusive Grey Falcon that was seen at several locations in the park. Sparrowhawks were plentiful hunting among the Red Gums and Coolibahs along the dry creek beds, and Nankeen Kestrels and Australian Hobbies were common right across the gibber plains. Wedge-tailed Eagles were often encountered too with one pair very close to an old nest site at Mt Wood. Brown Falcon were one of the most common raptors seen, and were frequently encountered in their familiar perch and stoop roosts throughout the National Park.

Another highlight for the raptor enthusiasts was watching a Spotted Harrier coursing a low stony ridge near Mt Wood and successfully swooping on prey. This raptor was seen in the park on several occasions during our stay.

Herons and waterbirds

Herons and other water-birds were seen at dams and near pools of water in stream beds in the park, sometimes staying for a day or two. These included juvenile Nankeen Night Herons, juvenile and adult White-necked Herons, a Yellow-billed Spoonbill, and several White-faced Herons. Unusually, there were also large flocks of Straw-necked Ibis, both at the dams, and feeding on insects around dry creek beds and associated floodplains.

Birds around the accommodation buildings at Mt Wood included Diamond Doves, Zebra Finches, Spiny-cheeked Honeyeaters, White-plumed Honeyeaters, Crested Bellbirds, Rufous Songlarks, Bluebonnets and Bourke’s Parrots. A Spotted Nightjar was also seen on a night drive.

Woodland birds

The Crested Bellbirds seen at Mt Wood are an inland specialist with a distinct liquid call, and a male with a territory near the Shearers’ Quarters was observed calling from his perch atop a dead eucalypt most mornings. Other birds in woodland and dry creek beds not far from the Shearers’ Quarters included a large gang of Apostlebirds, several Red-capped Robin territories, small groups of Chestnut-crowned Babblers, an Owlet Nightjar, and scattered pairs of Blue Bonnet parrots, as well as the ubiquitous Galahs, that were seen pairing off and starting nest preparations.

One pair of Blue Bonnets had “parked” a juvenile in low bushes, returning at dawn and dusk to feed it. The youngster was observed climbing down to the ground to forage in the leaf litter for seeds during the day, and climb deftly back into the bush at night and whenever a threat appeared. It was a simple, but effective survival strategy.

Arid zone specialists

A group of five Cinnamon Quail-thrush were seen - both males and females, and more were observed later that afternoon in a creek line bird survey near Stud Creek.

At one dam, Flock Bronzewings were seen most evenings, but in small numbers compared to their previous abundance in central Australia. Pairs were common and a flock of about 16 was the most seen flying together late one afternoon as the low sun silhouetted them against the red earth surrounding the dam. Also at this dam a pair of Red-necked Avocets arrived one evening and were at ease feeding with the resident pair of Hoary-headed Grebe and a lone White-necked Heron.

It was good to see the birds take advantage of a boom year in an area usually subject to harsh arid-zone conditions. Many species had hung on through nearly a decade of drought while others were exploiting a new area in good times.