Birding the Queensland Outback

We were on the road just after dawn, heading west. The rolling hills and tropical rainforests of the Tablelands gave way to Eucalypts as we descended the western slopes of the Great Dividing Range and into much drier habitat. Towns and settlements thinned out, and we were warned that enormous cows might try to consume our car.

We followed Highway 1, the Kennedy Highway, past Millaa Millaa and Ravenshoe. There was much discussion about whether this latter town was named for one corvid’s footwear or many corvids sharing a digging tool. As that debate was winding down, I saw several enormous black shapes drifting buoyantly through the trees. Fluffy hawks? Puff eagles? Or… Red-tailed Black Cockatoos!

“Stop the car!” I hollered. Neil, now having learned that there was either a dangerous unseen obstruction ahead (cough, cough, that chain across the road in Costa Rica) or a very important avian sighting in-progress, expertly performed an Emergency Birding Maneuver (EBM) and parked the car swiftly and safely off the side of the road. I pointed to three Red-tailed Black Cockatoos perched in a tall Casuarina tree. Nearly the size of another “red-tail,” the hawk known to all North American birders, these large black parrots preened in the sunlight, showing off their bouffant crests and their broad blood-red tail panels. We had excellent views in the scope before the cockatoos fluttered away in search of a mid-morning snack.

At some point, the narrow two-lane highway gave way to a single lane mostly-paved road with dirt shoulders.

The custom when driving along this Gulf Developmental Road is to drive full speed in the middle of the road. When a vehicle approaches from the other direction, you jerk the wheel to the left and drive with two tires on the dirt shoulder and two on the paved road. Hopefully the shoulder is relatively smooth in that spot, because you’re usually still traveling at high speed. The other car does the same, and you pass inches from each other in a roaring cloud of dust. Then it’s another jerk to the right to get yourself back on the pavement.

The exception to the rule above is when you meet a road train. I’m bummed that I didn’t get any good photos of road trains, because they are something to behold. Essentially giant forms of the North American “semi” or “tractor-trailer,” the road train has a motorized cab that pulls up to three (and in some cases even four!) trailers behind it. These road trains are truly massive in scale, and are used to transport goods on the long haul routes through the vast Australian outback. They can be over 150 feet long with up to 80 tires in contact with the pavement. When a road train approaches a regular car, it does not slow down or move over. So when you see a road train materialize around the bend ahead, your heart goes a bit into your throat as you wrestle the vehicle completely off the road (at speed) and try to avoid termite mounds, boulders, trees, and ditches. If your passenger is an American chemistry teacher, sometimes they grab the handhold above their left shoulder and yell, “rooooooooad traaaaaaaaain!” It’s a bit of an adventure.

The other thing we noticed, especially west of Mt. Surprise, was that there were very few passenger sedans out on the road. In addition to road trains, we saw mostly other assorted trucks and SUVs. Even the smaller private vehicles had engine snorkels for river crossings, huge tires (with two of three spares on the back and/or roof), extra external fuel tanks, and “roo bars” – thick steel bars the diameter of a softball bat that wrapped around the front of a vehicle to protect from “roo strikes.” We did indeed see many dead kangaroos on the side of the road, some of them quite large. And we were repeatedly warned not to drive after dark when “the roos are on the road.” A direct roo strike on an passenger car was often fatal for both the roo and any humans traveling in the vehicle. We updated our travel plans to make sure we were off the roads before sunset.

Some 5 hours and 350 km after we set out, we arrived in Georgetown. The last stretch was entirely on dirt roads, so it felt weird to be back in a place with electricity and petrol stations. Georgetown is not big (348 people according to the 2016 census), but it’s the one of the largest towns between the Tablelands and the Gulf of Carpentaria. We had come all the way to the Georgetown area to see birds of the dry country. There are a great number of Australian bird species that roam the vast dry interior, following transient moisture and food supplies. A special thing about Georgetown is the old Cumberland mine and dam, another 20 km west of town. This abandoned gold mining site often has permanent water, even in the dry season, and is an oasis for birds in the middle of the desert. After a quick stop at the Georgetown racetrack where we picked up two new charismatic species, Apostlebirds and Weebills, we headed out to Cumberland in the waning afternoon light.

Cumberland is the site of a 19th Century gold mine. By 1886, its annual output was more than 11,000 ounces of gold. Steam engines were used to excavate the gold ore and crush it. A dam along Cumberland Creek was built to ensure a constant supply of water. A town of 400 people sprung up – larger than present-day Georgetown. And this giant masonry chimney was built to disperse the smoke of the engines and machinery. Within a couple decades, all of the gold-rich ore was removed, the mine went bust, and people moved away. Today all that remains is part of the dam and the towering brick chimney. There’s also a small RV park and a picnic table. It sure doesn’t look like much in terms of “great birding habitat,” and when we clambered out car in the stifling heat of the afternoon I briefly wondered if we had made a two-day, 800 km mistake. But there were birds here, and it wasn’t long before we started finding them.

There were Green Pygmy-Geese and Hardheads in the swallow pond, along with some Australasian Grebes. A darter and several species of cormorants rested on a fallen tree over the water. A Pacific Heron and various egrets stalked the shallows, and a number of Comb-crested Jacanas walked across the emergent vegetation. We picked up a number of new passerines for our trip, including Yellow-throated Miner, Rufous-throated Honeyeater, Gray-crowned Babbler, and Rufous Songlark. Neil is a truly outstanding birder, and he was picking out new species left and right. Finches were feeding on grass seeds, and we had great looks at the snazzy Zebra, Masked, and Black-throated Finches. Another crowd of Apostlebirds came by, followed by a small flock of honeyeaters. A Wedge-tailed Eagle soared by. A small flock of Diamond Doves came in to drink at a muddy puddle. We checked out the local Toxic Waste Site (because, hey, no self-respecting birder is going to let a little toxic waste get between them and a lifer, right?!).

In two and a half hours we covered nearly three miles. We totally ran out of water, I ripped my shirt crawling under a barbed wire fence, and we arrived back at the car hungry, thirsty, dirty, and exhausted. But with 50 species recorded, including more than a dozen that were new for our trip, it was an extremely successful afternoon. The grand finale was waiting for us when we returned to the mammoth brick chimney where we parked our car. I noticed that there was a little extra bump on top that hadn’t been there earlier. That bump turned out to be… a Brown Falcon scanning for dinner!

Brown Falcon at the top of the chimney

We spent the night at the Latara Motel, which is the nicest motel in all of Georgetown. It was also the only commercial accommodation in town, and it was mostly adequate for our modest purposes. Food was a bit hard to come by, though, but we did rustle up a beer and a snack. At first light we were back at Cumberland dam where we had a delightful morning, seeing many of the species from yesterday as well as a few new ones, but at a more relaxed pace. A singing Red-browed Pardalote led us on a merry chase, but we finally tracked it down and got great looks. We also stopped at nearby Durham dam, another watering hole in the desert. Neil hiked all the way in, and reported good numbers of water birds.

At this point, we were both starving. It had been a couple days since we’d had a real meal, and even our snack supply in the car was running low. Neil looked at me, and wondered aloud if we could possibly make it back to the Whistle Stop Cafe in Yungaburra, one of our favorite restaurants. The problem is that the Whistle Stop is only open for breakfast and lunch, and closes about 2:30pm. I looked at the map, did a little mental math, and told Neil the bad news. “There is no possible way we can make it,” I said. “We’d have to average, like, 150 km/hr on those crazy one-lane roads.”

I had meant this as a statement that we’d have to find someplace else to eat, but Neil instead took it as a challenge. And we were off through the Outback, driving east at high speed. “What about Emu?” Neil asked as we rounded a bend fast enough for everything in the car to slide to the right.

“No recent records of emu at all,” I replied. “They’re quite rare here.”

“Disappointing,” replied Neil. As we passed an large field surrounded by some scraggly Eucalypts, I thought I saw…

Emu

“Stop the car!” When the car skidded to a halt and the resulting dust cloud rolled by, we saw, off in the distance a whole flock (herd?) of Emu. At nearly two meters tall, they made an impressive sight as they strolled their way across the dry grass. After five minutes of studying them through his optics, Neil checked his watch, slammed the car back into gear, and we were once again hurtling towards either a very late lunch or crippling disappointment at the Whistle Stop.

At 2:26pm we parked smartly in front of the cafe, and a scant 15 minutes later we were tucking into an extra large portion of eggs, toast, fruit, juice, and coffee. Mission accomplished! We ate several lunches in one sitting, and talked about the last leg of our trip which would be kicking off early tomorrow morning with a flight to the Northern Territory (or so we thought at the time).

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