Melbourne to Broome.
July 14th: We left Melbourne in the grey, cold dawn of winter and arrived in Broome to be greeted by hot sun and a bright blue, cloudless sky. During our plane flight we had already notched up a bird! A stopover at Alice Springs gave us time to venture out of the Terminal and walk around the native garden. The indigenous plants and pool are attractive to birds and humans alike. On a previous stopover we had been delighted to be met by a Ringneck Parrot. This time the garden was busy with small birds and we watched busy, chattering Zebra Finches, as they collected in the foliage prior to drinking at the small pool.
At Broome we collected our hired '4 Wheel Drive' and set off to see a part of Australia that not many Australians from southern States ever get to see. Near the Fitzroy River crossing the landscape became lusher, with large trees. A beautiful blue lagoon at Cockatoo Creek stays in our memory. A collection of Australian Pelicans, a Great Egret, five Little Pied Cormorants and an elegant Brolga pair were enjoying the picturesque spot.
As we drove on to Derby the landscape dried out again. The rich red soil was dotted with large termite mounds (Kimberley Castles the locals call them), and low shrubby vegetation. The stark shapes of the Boab trees appeared. The Boab is indigenous to the Kimberly region; it grows up to 15 metres high, the bulbous trunk becoming constantly larger (reaching up to 20 metres in circumference, while the height remains the same) and may live for many hundreds of years.
When we arrived at Derby our first stop was the Tourist Centre where we got instructions to find the new wetland we'd heard about, but we couldn't find it. However we found the sewerage ponds, which were full of Plumed Whistling Ducks, with Australasian Grebe and Pacific Black Ducks and a Royal Spoon-bill. Restless Flycatchers darted around in the nearby foliage. The whole area was extremely dry, quite desolate, as it was five months since rain fell, but even so we enjoyed our walk through the well sign -posted Botanical Trail and found a few flowering grevilleas and bottle brush.
Other birds we saw in the district included many that we would continue to sight throughout our trip such as Restless Flycatcher, Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike, Willie Wagtail, Little Corellas, Pied Butcher-bird, Torresian Crow and many raptors including Little Eagle and Nankeen Kestrel. The Little Corellas that clustered in the flowering treetops were often various shades of beige or even pink, due to the red sand and dust.
When we looked at the Derby Port we saw a collection of Pied Cormorants perched on rocks. While we watched an Eastern Reef Egret (Grey Morph) and Silver Gulls fossicking, an Osprey flew in from seaward. Near the cemetery we had our first sighting of a group of Grey-crowned Babblers and watched them enter their capacious communal roosting nest in a huge Boab tree. They are very interesting birds to watch. Crested Pigeon, Peaceful Doves and Bar-shouldered Doves pottered around in the red dust. We saw the Red-backed Kingfisher who burrows into the huge (up to 2 metre x 2 metre) termite mounds to create its nest site. Australian White Ibis and Masked Lapwing Plovers were amongst the birds enjoying the water-sprinklers on a sports oval,
Winjana Gorge: So far all our travels had been on made roads as, but after seeking advice on the condition of the road, we decided to drive to Fitzroy Crossing via the Winjana Gorge. Before the turnoff to Winjana we would be travelling on the infamous Gibb River Road, but the first 60 Km of the road is paved. Apparently the road deteriorates badly further along (the eastern section), but we didn't find the road to Winjana too corrugated.
After about two hours travel we reached Winjana. The Department of Conservation and Land Management (CALM) provides excellent and informative stands at all the sites they manage and attractive brochures are available at Visitor Centres in towns. They explain how this ancient 3.5 km long gorge has been carved by the floodwaters of the Lennard River through the limestone of the Napier Range. It was interesting to look up and note the height of the flood debris well above our heads and then try and imagine the amount of water that flows through the gorge in the 'wet'. The river only flows after the wet season, so for most of the year there are only pools of water in the gorge. It is not only a beautiful place, but also quite fascinating, as deposits from an ancient ocean reef are now exposed to view.
Fresh-water crocodiles slept in the hot sun at the edge of the water and we noted that the various water birds, including a Great Cormorant kept well away from their territory. Butterflies, Double-barred Finches and Red-collared Rainbow Lorikeets kept us company as we walked along the sandy riverbank. The plumage of Rainbow Bee-eaters flashed with an aqua gleam as they darted after insects. Announcing their arrival with much chatter and activity, the Little Corellas come in for a drink. Cleaner than their Derby cousins, they clustered in the tree-tops looking like large flowers, their colour echoing the white trunks of the eucalypts that contrasting vividly with the red cliffs behind them.
One could spend all day and more exploring this gorge, however we drove along the road to look at Tunnel Creek. This is a 750-metre tunnel through the ancient rock. In the dry season it is possible to walk through, but it includes some wading through pools and although there were many people attempting the walk we decided it was not for us. The unmade road wasn't too rough, but all the same we were glad when the next 115 km. were over and we arrived at Fitzroy Crossing.
The Fitzroy Crossing Hotel is a large complex with Motel accommodation and an extensive camping area set in well-treed grounds. Being beside the Fitzroy River is a bonus, so there were plenty of birds around, from Great Bower Birds to tiny Yellow-tinted Honey-eaters. At sunset Galahs, coming to drink at the river, wheeled in formation above us. They were the northern form, Race kuhli. Beside the river I found a Whistling Kite settling in to roost on a bare branched tree.
Early the next day we drove to Geike Gorge. Our journey was enlivened with a good sighting of an Australian Bustard. Then alongside the road we spied a pair of Brolgas with one young one. With stately strides they moved quickly into the long golden grass. Cattle Egrets attended the huge Brahmin cattle that browsed in the unfenced grasslands.
We came across our first live wallaby. Sadly, we saw many that had been killed by vehicles. The only consolation is that they provided food for many raptors, not just the ubiquitous Black Kites, but also quite often Wedge-tailed Eagles and others. We were pleased to note that all the road-kill had been moved to the edge of the roads for the safety of road users and for the birds they attracted.
Geike Gorge: It was still cool when we arrived at the Gorge although it soon warmed up. The fifteen metre high cliffs are a spectacular rich red, with a lighter base from the leaching effect of the floodwater. Over thousands of years the Fitzroy River carved the 30 metre deep gorge through the limestone of the Geike Range. Camping is not allowed but there are boat tours and walks along one bank of the gorge. We saw Freshwater Crocodiles and a large Water Monitor and were told that the gorge contains stingrays and an abundance of fish. Hence the many birds both beside the water, flying overhead and in the trees including a White-bellied Sea-Eagle, Darter, Whistling Kite, Great Egret and Pied Cormorant. Three Red-tailed Black Cockatoos flew high over-head, Rainbow Bee-eaters darted from the waterside trees, while Fairy Martins continually darted over the water and we could see their mud nests on the cliff overhang.
Mary Pool: Before our next stop of Halls Creek we turned off the main road to visit Mary Pool. The days warmed up quickly and by 11am it was already hot, so we were glad to find this delightful rock bound pool, with its open sandy banks shaded by white trunked eucalypts. A number of large motor homes were 'free camping' at this picturesque spot, which was also a favourite stop for many birds. The Corellas liked this cool haven, as did a large Pelican, a Black Cormorant, a group of Galahs, many honeyeaters and Double-barred Finches.
Halls Creek: As we were not towing our home we needed to stay at the Motel at Halls Creek. Halls Creek is not the most charming place, but the Pied Butcher Bird did his best to add melody to the dusty air.
Early next day we took an unmade road to two very beautiful places, Caroline Pool and Palm Springs (complete with palms). The springs flow into Black Elvire River where we found quite a collection of water birds, including Little Pied Cormorant and Radjah Shelducks.
The long golden grass of the plain gave way to beautiful gardens of hummock grass of many kinds, in a constantly changing arrangement of soft greens and smoky blues interspersed with the iron rich red of the rocky slopes. The next stop was planned to be Saw-pit Gorge, but the road deteriorated to such an extent that we decided that 'discretion was the better part of valour' and turned back.
Kununurra: The drive to Kununurra was pleasant and as our Motel was beside Kununurra Lake it made a good start to exploring the lake with its wide array of bird-life. There were the ubiquitous Magpie-larks, Pied Butcher Bird and of course Black Kites were always circling somewhere overhead. Great Bower Birds were plentiful, entertaining us with their range of calls. Red-winged Parrots were a pretty sight when they flew in near dusk to rest on the bare treetops. Clamorous Reed-warblers called from the long bull-rushes, ducks of many types glided across the glassy surface of the lake, new ones to us being Hardhead Ducks. Australasian Grebes bobbed around in the water and charming Jacanas pottered across the lily pads. Further around the lake Glossy Ibis and Sacred Ibis joined Intermediate Egrets and a large White-necked (Pacific) Heron as they pottered around at the water's edge. Wandering Whistling Ducks congregated in large flocks, which included a scattering of other species like Pacific Black Ducks.
I observed a Great Bower Bird displaying at his bower. This bird has quite unremarkable brown, mottled plumage, so it was quite startling when he flared his normally hidden lilac-pink crest in display mode. With self-important care he arranged his white and green art collection around his bower of interlaced twigs, while giving voice to a most amazing repertoire of sounds.
It was so beautiful at sunrise to walk around the verge of the lake and watch the birds coming and going. Not far from our room a Sacred Kingfisher had his special spot near the bull-rushes. As they darted after their prey the wings of the super quick Rainbow Bee-eaters flashed aqua bright in the sunlight. Close by a male Darter regularly dried his wings beside a small jetty, quite oblivious to a Pied Cormorant who liked his own particular spot only a few feet away. Beautiful Crimson Finches joined the many Double-barred Finches in the trees and rushes.
At various times of the day there were Peaceful and Bar-shouldered Doves fossicking around, Willie Wagtail had his special spot, Magpie-larks were always in sight, while various Honey-eaters flitted in and out the trees all day. A pair of Mistletoebirds gave us a special treat, but like the honeyeaters constantly thwarted the photographer.
We stayed at Kununurra for a few days but we didn't go on a boat trip on Lake Argyle, as the early morning bird trips weren't running. Moreover, I was more than anxious about my hand and needed a few visits to the Hospital. However, Kununurra Lake provided us with plenty of bird life to observe.
We visited Mirima, a small National Park near the Town. Dubbed 'Mini Bungle Bungles' by the locals, as the 350-million-year-old sandstone was formed at the same time as the Bungle Bungles and has been subjected to similar weathering conditions. Although it was extremely dry the 2,068-hectare park had beautiful wildflowers growing on the rugged rocks and was well set up with good signage and walking tracks. Various bush birds including White-quilled Rock-Pigeon may be found here, but like everywhere it is best visited in the early morning.
Marglu Lagoon and Parry Creek Farm: We were hoping for good things as we left Kununurra and drove to our next stopover at Parry Creek Farm and we were not disappointed. After an hours drive we turned into an unmade road to find our accommodation at Parry Creek Farm, which is privately owned land within the Parry Lagoons Nature Reserve. This reserve is known as an important feeding and breeding area and I read in a (CALM) brochure that the large Marglu lagoon is a stopover for migratory shorebirds from as far away as Siberia. We detoured to this lagoon, and were amazed at the large number of different species contained in a relatively small area. We have never seen such a varied concentration of birds, not even at Kakadu.
Marglu is an aboriginal word for wild bird and it is certainly most appropriate for this huge billabong, where for thousands of years Aboriginal people camped, fished, collected bird eggs and hunted water-birds, crocodiles and wallabies. I wished we had a spotting 'scope though, as there were so many birds out of range of the binoculars. New to our Kimberley list were Magpie Geese, Black-necked Stork, Straw-necked Ibis, White-faced Heron.. A Whistling Kite bathed beside the water's edge.
Amongst the land birds seen in the area were Restless Fly-catchers, a Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike and a Grey Shrike-thrush. A Whistling Kite bathed beside the water's edge. We passed Brolgas and a Brahminy Kite flew down low towards the lagoon.
The day was heating up and the hide seemed as crowded with bird-watchers as the lagoon was crowded with birds, so we left, intending to go back early next day and explore further, but it was not to be, as in spite of our slow progress along the rough track, a spitefully sharp rock slashed a tyre and we didn't want to chance that road again without a spare tyre on board.
Parry Creek Farm :
However, the Parry Creek Farm billabong was just as interesting. At the foot of the stairs from our room was the billabong and there was easy access to the water's edge in a number of places. There were birds we had already seen (including Rainbow Bee-eaters, Galahs, Little Corellas, Red-tailed Black Cockatoos, Peaceful and Bar Shouldered Doves, Great Bower Birds, Restless Flycatcher, Magpie-larks, Pelicans, Hardhead and Pacific Black Ducks, Australasian Grebes and Magpie Geese) and many that we hadn't seen.
An Intermediate Egret, a Great Egret and a juvenile Pied Heron paddled at the water's edge. Little Pied Cormorants watched from their 'possie' on a fallen tree trunk. Red-backed Fairy-wrens, Crimson, Double-barred and Star Finches could be found in the long golden grass, while White-breasted Wood Swallows flew overhead or perched together on an overhanging branch. A Red-browed Pardalote was spotted in the foliage, then when evening fell a Barking Owl's strange call sounded across the hushed countryside.
At sunrise next day the air was cool and still. The sky was diffused with pink behind the stark, white trunks of eucalypt trunks and the strange bulbous silhouettes of the bare-branched Boab trees. We heard the plaintive cries of Red-tailed Black cockatoos and watched a flock of twenty fly over-head. The Pelicans went about their morning stretch. The Magpie Geese, neither magpies nor geese, nevertheless honked the alarm at our presence in geese-like fashion. In spite of the noise the Egrets were loath to move, while a Nankeen Night Heron lurked quietly in the shadows beside the water. A small flock of Galahs flew in for their morning drink, awakening the residents of the trees on the banks. Little birds made warm-up dashes into the sun and back to the shelter of the dense foliage. The juvenile Pied Heron reluctantly started looking for his breakfast.
Later in the day Rufous-throated Honey-eaters were seen in a flowering bush, while Black-faced Cuckoo-Shrike, Leaden Fly-catchers and Lemon-bellied Fly-catchers were found in the many trees of the mixed Boab and Eucalypt woodland around the lagoon. By 10 am the sun had climbed quite high in the sky and the warmth encouraged the raptors to leave their roosts. More than a dozen Black Kites circled lazily gaining height as they spiralled. A Blue-winged Kookaburra flew across our path as we wandered and there was many other birds we couldn't identify and no doubt many more we didn't see.
The next morning the birds were more accepting of our appearance at the riverbank as the sun was rising. As I watched quietly a Northern Fan-tail, then a Long-tailed Finch flew to a bare branch nearby, before quickly taking a drink.
The accommodation was well set up with motel style units on raised metal walkways above the lagoon. Meals and drinks etc. are available. There is ample room for camping with a large amenities block. For a small fee day use is available. It was very dry -they hadn't had rain since February-and so the birds were clustered in the lagoon. It was also fairly easy to walk along the river- bank and see the birds coming in to drink.
The Bungle Bungles is by repute a fascinating place to explore, but the entry road is very rough, so a helicopter seemed to be the ideal way to view the striking multi coloured domes. The CALM brochure tell us that the "sandstone and conglomerate forming the range were deposited 350 million years ago". However it is erosion in the last 20 million years that has created the striking formations. The patterns are created by bands of algae where moisture collects, while oxidised iron layers which have dried out quickly form the orange bands.
We have seen it all on television, but I feel I can truly describe the experience as 'unique'. The small helicopter zoomed in close to the domes and swept up and down the valleys, giving one a perspective and experience that television can't.
Throughout our trip we found the flora fascinating. There were a number of bottlebrush, wattles and grevilleas in flower sustaining numerous honeyeaters. It was interesting to note the number of deciduous plants. I believe that this is a response to the harsh conditions. A frugal plant drops its leaves in order to have the moisture needed to sustain flowering and fruiting.
The regime of rotating patchwork burning carried out by CALM results in an effect that mimics the 'mass planting' of gardeners. A specific plant will dominate for a few kilometres, and then the next few kilometres will be different again. Some plants require fire to germinate their seeds. The burning regime does add to the starkness of the landscape, but it eliminates grass and tree litter, so reducing fodder for fires late in the dry season. Such fires would be more harmful to the environment than fires of lower intensity earlier in the dry season. The Aboriginal people had used fire to shape the landscape for thousands of years and there is ongoing research into the effects of the burning regime.
Back to Broome.
Cable Beach deserves its fame as it is a beautiful golden-sanded beach, but it was usually thronged with humans of all types. So while we still had our 4-wheel drive vehicle we took our last trip on an unmade road to the Broome Bird observatory. Visitors from all over the world marvel at the golden sand of Cable Beach in Broome, however Roebuck Bay beach, reached from the Broome Bird Observatory, has striking red sand, interspersed with dramatic black and red rocks, a background of red cliffs and with few humans and many more birds to observe.
The staff at the Observatory were very helpful and lent us a spotting scope and tripod. Although the time of the year was not the best for water birds we saw both Sooty and Pied Oyster-catchers, Pied Cormorants, Pelicans, Red-capped Plovers, Broad-billed Sandpipers, Red Knot, Common Tern and a lone Little Egret. We were intrigued by the performance of the Red-capped Plovers returning in groups to the tidal-flats. They danced along the sand, and then rose in a cloud into the air to land a little further along, like a well-choreographed dance class.
Accommodation is available at the Observatory and they run special courses throughout the year. There are walking tracks through a lightly forested area in from the coast and a 'hide' near birdbaths to make it easy to see bush birds.
In retrospect I think that if one's reason for visiting the Kimberley was solely to bird watch I suggest, that unless one wanted to see the migratory birds at Broome, (in which case choose carefully the time of the year) all the birds we saw could be seen within a few hundred kilometres. Visit Marglu lagoon and Parry Creek, Wyndam, Lake Kununurra and Lake Argyle (if there were early morning bird trips running) and one could probably check off most of the birds we saw. It would be a shame not to see a gorge, but Emma Gorge is reputed to be beautiful and is 33 km west along the Gibb River road.
The Kimberley area has a stark and rugged beauty. The jagged outcrops of rusty red that break up the grassy plains seemed to me like the backbones of giant crocodilian creatures asleep beneath the crusty land. Colours both bold and subtle abound and some combinations will always brings back memories. Bright golden Pindan Wattle against a vivid blue sky, the red of iron rich soil against the smoky blue-greens of the grassy hummocks, the white trunks and bright green leaves of eucalypts against the blackened burnt earth.
The distinctive colours of the Kimberley are both bold and subtle. They are echoed in the colours of the indigenous birds, creating camouflage that is often only undone by their movements or if they are in the open. However, we did note to ourselves that the most successful birds Australia wide seem to be black, white or a combination of these.
If you have any questions about birding in the Kimberley or other parts of Australia feel welcome to email Janet
Queensland Trip Report