For some time on our trip we have longed to get involved in some type of volunteering effort involving the boys – whether it be on an ecological, indigenous or some other community level. An opportunity arose to spend some time to conduct some “wild bird counting” on the 14,000 hectare (140sqkm) site of the Bowra Wildlife Sanctuary and home to over 200 species located northwest of Cunnamulla in central southern Queensland.
Formerly a sheep & cattle station of 5 generations, Bowra was purchased by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) in 2010 due to its significant bird-life. The property covers flood plains and catchments of the Warrego and Paroo Rivers with its Gidgee, Poplar Box and Cypress woodlands, westward through riparian stands of Coolabah, River Red Gum and Mulga woodland(s) with a cross-section of 70kms of bush-tracks to access most parts.
We arrived at Bowra on the day the sanctuary reopened in late June after closing for several days due to 55mm of unseasonal rain causing ephemeral flooding. Our task during our stay at Bowra was simple: Find birds!
This meant each of us had to locate, identify, count and record all bird sighting(s) anywhere within the 14,000 hectares of the sanctuary. This was to be carried out without getting lost, avoid snakes (easy enough as it’s winter), and each evening report back to the onsite sanctuary caretakers with our bird counting sheets at the old shearers quarters for the daily bird call for tallying. The boys absolutely loved it and even whilst we gave them some latitude in where they could go on their own (with portable two-way radios occasionally in-hand as a precaution) they managed not to get lost, thankfully.
Due to the amount of rain in the previous week this had made our job of spotting birds that much harder as there was now an abundance of water across the entire property – meaning, the birds were vastly spread out rather than in several usual “bird hotspots”. And to add to the challenge of spotting / counting birds, the rain had closed all of the 70kms of drivable tracks across the property that stem out from the old homestead, except for one track which reopened on our 2nd last day. As a result, to get anywhere was (almost) entirely on foot and over the 7 days we stayed at Bowra we covered approx. 100kms of walking. Great exercise though and should bode well in a week or so when we call through the Warrumbungles for a couple of days.
At the end of each day, 6pm to be exact, all the bird volunteers meet in the old shearers quarters and a bird count tally for the day occurs and the highest number of all species counted was recorded against that species for each day. It was always interesting to see what others saw and where they saw it. During these daily bird calls, sometimes we were the only ones there and other days there were as many as 8-10 other volunteers/birders.
It wasn’t always straightforward for us to identify birds we have not seen before. There are several species at Bowra that appear the same with highly subtle variations to identify. In terms of the species of birds we saw / photographed across the week our final bird count for the week ended up as follows – click on the spreadsheet to view if interested. We didn’t see too many birds of prey apart from the Whistling Kite, however there are many various Parrots species that are common to the sanctuary, as are many honey eaters. For us, a comprehensive bird guide was essential to help identify for some birds and we used the Pizzey & Knight “Birds of Australia” digital edition. Out of the 200+ species known to Bowra, we identified 73 of them and below we have highlighted a few birds that we were privileged enough to photograph.
(Note: Apologies in advance for some of the smaller portrait / profile bird shots. The largest focal length lens we took on our trip around Oz was a 90mm f2.8 which meant I had to find ways of getting closer to the birds – a.k.a. stalking :). Some of the “real birders” were using 400mm+ lenses with 1.4 or 2.0X teleconverters – we even saw one person using the enormous 300-800mm Sigma APO lens, affectionally known as the ‘Sigmonster’ on one of the days – a very serious (and expensive) lens).
Like all bowerbirds, the Spotted Bowerbird is polygynous and males build and maintain bowers and display courts. These serve as a focal point for may social activities and are thought to act as an indicator of male quality for potential females. Spotted bowerbirds build avenue-bowers of grass and twigs that are wider than many other avenue building bowerbirds. Males may paint the walls of bowers using masticated grass and saliva with most bowers generally built under large, bushy shrubs or low-lying trees that provide adequate shelter with often some type of food source.
Some bower sites, known as traditional sites, may be retained for upwards of 20 years; rebuilt each year by a number of males in successive years unless the Bower of one male is threatened by a rival male Spotted Bower bird is was the case at Bowra on this particular day.
Q; What’s under his right foot – please post a comment if you think you may know what it could be?
In these 3 images, we watched for 10-15 minutes one male defending his bower over the rival male. It got quite heated and vocal at times throughout the confrontation and they both paid no attention to my presence whatsoever. In hindsight, perhaps an experience that would have been better videoed than photographed, however I felt privileged to witness the event unfold regardless.
In the end, the Spotted Bower Bird on the right above appeared to stave off the rival and after the other male leaving, the victorious male proceeded to fix up the placement of all his trinkets and objects ready for the next female to come along. It was then time for us to move on and leave.
Here we have a vibrantly coloured male we photographed along the sanctuary’s artesian bore-drain approx 3kms south-east from the homestead and campground.
The smallest of the red robins, the red-capped robin is 10.5–12.5 cm long with a wingspan of 15–19.5 cm, and weighs around 7–9 g. Males and females are of similar size. It has longer legs (see image below) than the other robins of the genus Petroica. The male has a distinctive scarlet cap and breast and its upperparts are jet black with white shoulder bars with the tail black with white tips. The underparts and shoulder are white. All colours are sharply delineated from one another and make great subjects to photograph. The female is an undistinguished grey-brown above with a reddish tint to the crown, and paler underneath with dark brown wings and pale buff wing patch.
The Brolga is one of those large birds I have been wanting to see in the wild for many years and never had the privilege until this trip. We first saw them from a distance up in the Kimberley off the Gibb River Road of Western Australia late last year and then again at Karumba on the Gulf of Carpentaria a few months back. On both of those occasions we were not in any position at the time of each sighting to take any photographs as were driving and unable to safely pull off the road.
At Bowra, Brolgas are regularly sighted in certain areas and we hoped our luck would change to be able to see them at close range, within reason. As it turned out, we saw a pair of Brolgas almost every day in different locations around the sanctuary and getting no closer than 250-300M was the absolute closest we were able to achieve before our cover would be blown and they would immediately take flight. These were very timid birds and were constantly looking out for predators – perhaps foxes?
Eventually, our luck changed, and we quietly snuck up on one pair down the back of the southern end of the sanctuary adjacent to the Cunnamulla airstrip (see map for Brolga sighting location(s)). Not sure of the attraction for them down there – perhaps they enjoy the sound of single engine Cessnas or the smell of AvGas? What ever the reason, we spotted this same pair a few times over the week however the first couple of times they saw us well before we saw them and first thing you would hear is their squawking whilst flying away and the opportunity to photograph lost. This said, we finally got close to them without them knowing one day and did so by being crouched down and hidden behind a cluster of nasty boxthorn bushes. Rattled off a few distant shots from our dubious cover and were pleased with the end result – all things considered. The shots below are from this encounter.
In case you are not familiar with the largest of the Australian Crane family, here is a brief description of the Brolga.
The Brolga is a tall bird with a large beak, long slender neck and stilt-like legs. The sexes are indistinguishable in appearance though the females are usually a little smaller. The adult has a grey-green, skin-covered crown, and the face, cheeks and throat pouch are also featherless and are coral red. Other parts of the head are olive green and clothed in dark bristles. The gular pouch, which is particularly pendulous in adult males, is covered with such dense bristles as to make it appear black. The beak is greyish-green, long and slender, and the iris is yellowish-orange. The feathers on the back and the wing coverts have pale margins. The primary wing feathers are black and the secondaries grey. The legs and feet are greyish-black. Juveniles lack the red band and have fully feathered heads with dark irises. A fully-grown Brolga can reach a height of 0.7 to 1.3 metres and has a wingspan of 1.7 to 2.4 metres. Adult males average slightly less than 7 kilograms with females averaging a little under 6 kilograms. The weight can range from 3.7 to 8.7 kilograms.
The Brolga can easily be confused with the sarus crane, however the latter’s red head colouring extends partly down the neck while the Brolga’s is confined to the head. The Brolga is more silvery-grey in colour than the Sarus, the legs are blackish rather than pink and the trumpeting and grating calls it makes are at a lower pitch. Additionally, in Australia the range of the Sarus is limited to a few scattered localities in northern Australia, compared to the more widespread distribution of the Brolga.
We have never seen a Spoonbill in the wild. Measuring around 90 cm, the yellow-billed spoonbill has all white plumage. The long spoon-shaped bill, bare-skinned face, legs and feet are all yellow, while the iris is pale yellow. The sexes are similar in plumage and coloration. In the breeding season, the face is lined with black, long hackles develop on the chest, and the wings have black tips. The bill of the yellow-billed spoonbill is narrower and works more like a forceps than the larger-ended and more spoon-like bill of the royal spoonbill, which acts like a pair of tongs.
The Yellow-billed Spoonbill is carnivorous, catching small animals by sweeping its bill through shallow water and swallowing prey once it is detected. When slow sweeping, the spoonbill walks with the bill at an angle at about 60 degrees to horizontal and with the bill tip open about 2 to 4 cm, sweeping an arc of around 120 degrees in front of the bird. The bird walks slowly, kicking up debris and small animals from the bottom of the water, which it then senses and catches with its bill. When an item is detected, the spoonbill switches to intensive sweeping of a small area. The boys took delight in counting them each day and keeping tabs on their whereabouts.
Our campsite for a week at Bowra Sanctuary next to the old shearing shed. We even had the satellite up ready to watch the Federal election telecast one evening. Just what you need after another long day of walking/birding 🙂 Copyright Geoff Hunter
Bowra is a unique outback experience that rates as one of the most memorable legs of our trip. It totally surpassed all expectations and we met some lovely people all of whom were like-minded with a love of wildlife and the outback.
Throughout the course of the week and despite being winter, we still saw many other types of wildlife that call Bowra home. From many pest-species such as feral goats and pigs, even feral cats, to thousands of roaming western and eastern grey Kangaroos, a few late season reptiles, turtles and of course, our perennial favourite, the good ol’ Emu in large numbers. The Emus at Bowra are not as used to human interaction as other places we’ve visited on this trip but they are just as cooky and as always, delightful to observe. On one of the days out scouting for birds as part of our count, we stumbled across an Emu nest with a clutch of 8 eggs and the male Emu nesting not too happy with our presence. A quick image from a distance and we set off rather quickly so not to stress the poor guy and watched from a distance as he came back to the nest.
As with a lot of the outback stations in central Australia where there is permanent fresh water, you often find a variety of Kangaroos and or Wallabies. Bowra is home to numerous Kangaroos species, particularly the western and eastern grey varieties. Some kangaroos around the campsite will tolerate people from what they deem as an appropriate distance, however most ‘roos around the sanctuary are very timid and hop off at the first sight of you – except this big male below who just stood there and showed how ‘proud’ he was.
Of course, it was not all bird watching and counting. We had great weather for the most part with warm days and brisk nights. We also caught up on necessary duties such as washing and cleaning, got into a couple of good books and carried out some well-earned relaxing due to all the walking. The also boys finished their schooling before the holiday period commenced.
People we met at the sanctuary were lovely too. Some from all ends of the country and many of them using Bowra as a key-stop to some other known birding site further north where it is much warmer this time of year – and who could blame them if you have the opportunity.
Bowra is one of those rare places that simply centres you. The birds are the star of the show here…
Most, if not all of your other worldly concerns and possessions, don’t tend to matter here and become almost instantly unimportant and forgotten about – except if you own a pair of binoculars and/or camera. What is central to this unique experience though, is the absolutely wonderful outback Queensland location, the beautiful setting of the Bowra homestead and abundance of wildlife all of which is easily accessible if you have the propensity and are physically able to get out and immerse yourself within it.
And as caring parents of two young impressionable boys, at times in this day and age when it’s difficult to prise them away from iPads and other often nonsensical material possessions, they instantly forgot about these distractions altogether and willingly got involved in various sanctuary tasks on their own accord and learnt many worthy life values which was hugely gratifying.
Above all else, experiencing all these things and more, happily together as a family unit …well, it was simply priceless.
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