Monday, 26 June 2017

Birds of the Cape River & Campaspe Plains, Queensland

Back in the summer of 2016, on a collection of rural properties in the desert uplands region (Cape-Campaspe Plains) of northern Queensland, south-west of Charters Towers and south-east of the small town of Pentland, four men and a woman dressed in khaki and beige set about turning over every rock, fallen branch and piece of tin they could lay their hands on, in search of the creatures below and within. They had very little to do over three weeks…, other than find animals. 

Black-throated Finch stake-out
Some good rains had fallen over the region a few weeks prior to our arrival. The country was looking wonderful, and teeming with life. The cattle were fat and the frogs very nearly as fat -deafening they were in some places and one had to be careful with every step.

Each day Dennis, Darren, Bruce and I…, and many times, Sue, would set out from our camp on the upper reaches of the Cape River and begin the long drive north towards Pentland, from where we would then head east along the Flinders Highway, over the Cape River tributaries, and further on head south along a nondescript dirt road into the survey area. It was quite the trek! For, due to the river flowing at the time, and there being no nearby crossings any of us were aware of that would get us over to the eastern side, this extra hike was forced upon us each day. Frustratingly, the vast majority of survey sites were just the other side of this river, and some of those only a few hundred metres from our camp. Every evening one of us would walk down to the river, look over it sullenly, and try to conceive a way around it. In the end, though, we had to come to terms that there was no other way.  

Gilgai woodland
The sites to the east were spread wide over the landscape, and within various types of habitats…, some proving more rewarding than others, in terms of what they brought. Lightly-timbered eucalypt and acacia woodland with a grassy understorey, normally referred to as tropical savannah, was probably the most dominant and extensive vegetation type and this is where the most interesting birds turned-up.

Ornamental Snake
There were also stands of native pine Casuarina cristata, or belah, on the heavier clay soils, where one of the animals we were after was supposed to be found, the Ornamental Snake Denisonia maculata (right). Searches were undertaken each evening for this little guy and every night we returned to camp with stories of their capture. No more than 18 inches long, this snake is almost exclusively found in, or very close to, the Gilgai’s (large, hollowed-out scrapes in the heavy clay soils) scattered in and around the belah woodland, where the surface of the earth reminds one of golf ball dimples. So often it was found sitting motionless in these depressions, lying in wait for anything edible to happen past and stumble into striking reach. And, as many of the scrapes contained water and were rung with a wealth of frogs, they did not have to wait long for their meals to arrive. 

Green-striped Frog
The frogs were great fun! They never stopped entertaining. In all, we came across eight different species -not including the vermin toad- and all in different stages of development. A couple of the more common species were the Superb Collared Frog Cyclorana brevipesGreen-striped Frog Cyclorana alboguttata (pictured left) and Eastern Snapping Frog Cyclorana novaehollandiae. There were tens of thousands of these and they could all be heard calling in perfect agreement, snapping up the wealth of insect prey within easy reach of another. Everything was perfect happiness. It was the same wherever we went. At every corner they were seen happy and squat, getting fat on the resources. 

Towards the end of the trip the frog din became less obvious. The chorus no longer reached the heights of earlier days and the quieter intervals between became more lengthy with each night -they were seemingly winding down. But gradually, little by little, within these relative calms one could make out an unusual and feeble sound. It was an odd little cry…, hardly-audible… high-pitched…, a drawn-out “eeeeegh”. I had no idea what it was. But it sounded disturbing. Darren suggested it was the sound of violence. The frogs, according to him, had put aside their former easiness, had turned on one another, and were now feasting on their neighbours. I couldn’t believe it. I needed to see it for myself. How could these charismatic little creatures be responsible for such ghastly deeds? It wasn’t possible.

Eastern Snapping Frog devouring a Superb Collared Frog
Darren, to shut me up, drew me over to where the so-called slaughter was taking place. He then there shone a light on a properly obese Eastern Snapping Frog in the middle of a meal. Here, thrust about a third of the way inside its mouth, was a slightly smaller, swollen, sad and pathetic-looking, Superb Collared Frog which, with each scream and release of air, was slowly disappearing within the mouth of the other. It was heart-breaking.

Happily, things were not so gruesome during daylight hours. We would set out for the savannah woodlands -principally on the eastern side of the study area- and spend hours beneath the summer sun searching for anything that moved or grumbled. The heat was brutal in these places! Animals of any kind were hard to come by. Even sun-loving lizards had gone missing -there was next to no sign of them here at the best of times. By as early as 8.30 most mornings the temperature had risen to around 40 degrees and, at that early hour, defied logic by feeling as though it was the hottest part of the day, only to rise steadily still throughout the remainder of the afternoon. No doubt after this mid-morning hell-spell the temperature plateaued and remained the same until late afternoon when the heat seemed not to be as bad…, or at least it was more bearable.

Herein, slow walk, after slow walk, from the shade of one tree to the next, where it was a good idea to stop a few moments, watch and listen, and pace one’s self so as not to come down with heat-stroke, some birds and animals put in an appearance. But none of them came quick and fast. Rather, there were lengthy periods of silence disrupted occasionally with brief bursts of activity.

Despite the seemingly unsuitable conditions, a good many bird species were discovered over the duration; likely because whenever anything interesting did “pipe-up” it was able to be heard over the hush and there were not too many distractions on the way to finding them. Not even the sometimes deafening cries of cicadas proved to be a problem. That is how one day I was able to latch on to a handful of Grey-fronted Honeyeater in a sparsely-treed woodland, a bird that I am more familiar with in southern parts of the country and one that very nearly goes down as my “bird-of-the-trip”.

Red-browed Pardalote
Whilst observing the grey-headed honeyeaters a soft piping sound was audible off in the near distance, a hundred metres or so away. Recognising the call at once, I set off in a canter, careful though not to over-heat the “machinery”. On arrival, it became clear that there were in fact two of the softly piping birds, which I knew to be the Red-browed Pardalote Pardalotus rubricatus (pictured left). Just managing to track one of the two birds down in time to obtain a visual identification, a different bird began calling a little way off that set my pulse racing anew. It was a Crested Bellbird, the “pum…, pum…, pumalum” call giving it away, and a species which I was not expecting to find here –I thought we too far north. But it turned out Bruce and Dennis had recorded them a few days beforehand, and I managed to come across more later, though they went unseen, as is so often the case with the species.

Daily travels around the properties also threw up a few really healthy-looking wetlands, the odd one quite large, and some with stands of aquatic vegetation. It was not something we were expecting to find. But these wetlands “beefed-up” the bird-list considerably and came in handy during the middle of the day when other habitats became inactive. For, apart from the usual waterbird candidates one might expect, there were also other fine discoveries such as Glossy Ibis, some breeding White-necked Heron, the Black-necked Stork, a small number of Magpie Geese, the Comb-crested Jacana, Cotton Pygmy Goose and, at one particularly productive spot, a pair of Brolga with chicks. Nice! Australasian Grebe and the northern, longer wattled form of Masked Lapwing also had active nests at this last location.

As for the target species, Squatter Pigeon Geophaps scripta scripta were seen fairly regularly in small numbers. We must came across them almost every day. Wherever a watercourse travelled through an area of skeletal soils we were a good chance of picking them up. The enigmatic Black-throated Finch Poephila cincta cincta was a different story, however. We were not getting a sniff of that bird anywhere.

Black-faced Woodswallow
Towards the latter end of the trip Darren and I decided to concentrate our efforts on an area near the south-eastern limits of the study area. A decent decision it proved, too, for it was in this area that some of the unexpectedly few Red-tailed Black-Cockatoo were encountered during the trip, likewise a couple more crested bellbird, a Red-backed Kingfisher and small numbers of Little Woodswallow. Darren busied himself by recording the plant species in this area and I continued the search further afield, soon losing sight of him, and still hopping from one tree to the next in search of shade -for it hadn’t got any cooler.

Black-throated Finch
Towards early evening, and after having picked up birds like Grey-crowned Babblers, Rufous-throated Honeyeater, a Collared Sparrowhawk and a loose group of 16 Black-faced Woodswallow Artamus cinereus (pictured above), I set out across a clearing scattered here and there with large isolated shrubs and trees when I thought I heard the call of a chat. My pulse quickened and I began looking about me in haste...., then with increasing desperation. The birds continued to call intermittently but, frustratingly, I was not able to locate them. I was mad with fear lest I should miss them. Then, off to my left, I caught sight of two small birds perched atop a tree in the clearing. Seeing them clearly now, the first thing that became clear was that they were no chats. No, these two birds were something much more exciting. For, there before me were a pair of black-throated finch, the birds we were after, and the same we thought it unlikely we would see. Immediately, I grabbed my camera and set about taking some record shots –none of them good despite their displays. Eventually, tired of my feeble attempts, they blew me off and flew to another perch fifty metres further on, and moments later were lost to the south. 

It was a hugely successful twelve days. And it could have been much more. For, in the last few days someone did eventually manage to find a way over the Cape River, only a kilometre or so downstream of our camp, where tracks left-right-and-centre crossed the river bed. It turned out all someone had to do was ask the station hand. 

Emu Dromaius novaehollandiae, Brown Quail Coturnix ypsilophora, Magpie Goose Anseranas semipalmata, Plumed Whistling Duck Dendrocygna eytoni, Pink-eared Duck Malacorhynchus membranaceus, Maned Duck Chenonetta jubata, Cotton Pygmy Goose Nettapus coromandelianus, Pacific Black Duck Anas superciliosa, Grey Teal Anas gracilis, Hardhead Aythya australis,  Australasian Grebe Tachybaptus novaehollandiae, Hoary-headed Grebe Poliocephalus poliocephalus, Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus, Black-necked Stork Ephippiorhynchus asiaticus, Glossy Ibis Plegadis falcinellus, Royal Spoonbill Platalea regia, Nankeen Night Heron Nycticorax caledonicus, White-necked Heron Ardea pacifica, Great Egret Ardea modesta, Intermediate Egret Ardea intermedia, Little Egret Egretta garzetta, Australian Pelican Pelecanus conspicillatus, Little Black Cormorant Phalacrocorax sulcirostris, Australasian Darter Anhinga novaehollandiae, Black Kite Milvus migrans, Whistling Kite Haliastur sphenurus, Spotted Harrier Circus assimilis, Brown Goshawk Accipiter fasciatus, Collared Sparrowhawk Accipiter cirrocephalus, Wedge-tailed Eagle Aquila audax, Nankeen Kestrel Falco cenchroides, Australian Hobby Falco longipennis, Brown Falcon Falco berigora, Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus, Australian Bustard Ardeotis australis, Purple Swamphen Porphyrio porphyrio, Eurasian Coot Fulica atra, Brolga Grus rubicunda, Little Buttonquail Turnix velox, Bush Stone-curlew Burhinus grallarius, White-headed Stilt Himantopus leucocephalus, Masked Lapwing Vanellus miles,  Black-fronted Dotterel Elseyornis melanops, Comb-crested Jacana Irediparra gallinacea, White-headed Pigeon Columba leucomela, Common Bronzewing Phaps chalcoptera, Crested Pigeon Ocyphaps lophotes, Squatter Pigeon Geophaps scripta scripta, Diamond Dove Geopelia cuneata, Peaceful Dove Geopelia striata, Red-tailed Black Cockatoo Calyptorhynchus banksii, Sulphur-crested Cockatoo Cacatua galerita, Galah Eolophus roseicapilla, Rainbow Lorikeet Trichoglossus haematodus moluccanus, Pale-headed Rosella Platycercus adscitus, Red-winged Parrot Aprosmictus erythropterus, Pheasant Coucal Centropus phasianinus, Pacific Koel Eudynamys orientalis, Channel-billed Cuckoo Scythrops novaehollandiae, Horsfield's Bronze Cuckoo Chrysococcyx basalis, Shining Bronze Cuckoo Chrysococcyx lucidus, Little Bronze Cuckoo Chrysococcyx minutillus minutillus, Pallid Cuckoo Cacomantis pallidus, Fan-tailed Cuckoo Cacomantis flabelliformis, Brush Cuckoo Cacomantis variolosus, Southern Boobook Ninox boobook, Tawny Frogmouth Podargus strigoides, Spotted Nightjar Eurostopodus argus, Australian Owlet-nightjar Aegotheles cristatus, Oriental Dollarbird Eurystomus orientalis, Laughing Kookaburra Dacelo novaeguineae, Blue-winged Kookaburra Dacelo leachii, Forest Kingfisher Todiramphus macleayii, Sacred Kingfisher Todiramphus sanctus, Red-backed Kingfisher Todiramphus pyrrhopygius, Rainbow Bee-eater Merops ornatus, Great bowerbird Chlamydera nuchalis, Spotted Bowerbird Chlamydera maculata, Brown Treecreeper Climacteris picumnus, Variegated Fairywren Malurus lamberti, Red-backed Fairywren Malurus melanocephalus, Singing Honeyeater Lichenostomus virescens, Grey-fronted Honeyeater Lichenostomus plumulus, Noisy Miner Manorina melanocephala, Yellow-throated Miner Manorina flavigula, Blue-faced Honeyeater Entomyzon cyanotis, Black-chinned Honeyeater Melithreptus gularis gularis, White-throated Honeyeater Melithreptus albogularis, Little Friarbird Philemon citreogularis, Noisy Friarbird Philemon corniculatus, Striped Honeyeater Plectorhyncha lanceolata, Brown Honeyeater Lichmera indistincta, Rufous-throated Honeyeater Conopophila rufogularis, Red-browed Pardalote Pardalotus rubricatus, Striated Pardalote Pardalotus striatus, Weebill Smicrornis brevirostris, White-throated Gerygone Gerygone ilvacea, Inland Thornbill Acanthiza apicalis, Yellow-rumped Thornbill Acanthiza chrysorrhoa, Yellow Thornbill Acanthiza nana, Grey-crowned Babbler Pomatostomus temporalis, Grey Butcherbird Cracticus torquatus, Pied Butcherbird Cracticus nigrogularis, Australian Magpie Cracticus tibicen, Masked Woodswallow Artamus personatus, White-browed Woodswallow Artamus superciliosus, Black-faced Woodswallow Artamus cinereus, Little Woodswallow Artamus minor, Black-faced Cuckooshrike Coracina novaehollandiae, White-bellied Cuckooshrike Coracina papuensis, Common Cicadabird Coracina tenuirostris, White-winged Triller Lalage sueurii, Varied Sittella Daphoenositta chrysoptera, Rufous Whistler Pachycephala rufiventris, Grey Shrikethrush Colluricincla harmonica, Crested Bellbird Oreoica gutturalis, Olive-backed Oriole Oriolus sagittatus, Willie Wagtail Rhipidura leucophrys, Magpie-lark Grallina cyanoleuca, Leaden Flycatcher Myiagra rubecula, Torresian Crow Corvus orru, Australian Raven Corvus coronoides, Apostlebird Struthidea cinerea, Jacky Winter Microeca fascinans, Tawny Grassbird Megalurus timoriensis, Rufous Songlark Cincloramphus mathewsi, Brown Songlark Cincloramphus cruralis, Mistletoebird Dicaeum hirundinaceum, Black-throated Finch Poephila cincta cincta, Zebra Finch Taeniopygia guttata, Double-barred Finch Taeniopygia bichenovii, Australian pipit Anthus australis

Based on Australian_IOC_Checklist V1.1

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