Kindra Sate Forest, just outside of the small NSW town of Coolamon, is 52 hectares of remnant bushland set aside for leisurely walking and mountain biking trails. It is also home to many bird and other wildlife species. When Bramanda visited we had a close encounter with a handsome goanna.
A Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike (Coracina novaehollandiae):
An Eastern Yellow Robin (Eopsaltria australis)
A Red-rumped Parrot (Psephotus haematonotus):
Apostlebirds (Struthidea cinerea) roamed the trails:
Galah (Eolophus roseicapilla)
Also this guy, sunning on a sculpture:
Kindra is also home to a family of White-winged Choughs (Corcorax melanoramphos ).
White Plumed Honeyeaters (Ptilotula pencillata)
Many Grey-crowned Babblers (Pomatostomus temporalis) were also in evidence.
But on this day, the star of the show was a stunningly beautiful Goanna who nonchalantly crossed the trail in front of us:
Saying goodbye to Paika Station, we headed to our next stop at Coolamon, crossing the ultra-flat Hay Plains. Along the way we encountered a mob of emus.
Nearing the village of Carrathool (population 300), we were on the lookout for something that we had been tipped off about: a Worm Farm and Composting facility that was a mecca for Black Kites (Milvus migrans). We had been prepared to expect many birds in the sky, but seeing 100 (at a minimum) circling together was not something that we were ready for. Photos struggle to do justice to just how full of Kites the skies here were:
Had we read up on these birds, we might not have been so surprised. Bird guides agree that Black Kites are gregarious and commonly form loose flocks numbering hundreds of individuals. These flocks most frequently form around cattle feedlots, abattoirs and rubbish dumps. A composting facility fits the pattern, then. Continuing our bad luck with raptor encounters, the light on this occasion was not great.
Black Kites are so named because they can appear black from a distance, but they are actually dark to mid-brown, rufous in their underparts, and with a pale brown head and neck.
When flapping, their flight is slow, almost lazy, and appears effortless. In contrast to the slightly larger Whistling Kite, Black Kites are more manoeuvrable, and they tend to bank and wheel a lot more. Bird guides seem to indicate that the Black Kite’s tail is “constantly” twisted and fanned.
At road level, the Galahs went about their grass-seed feeding undaunted by the clouds of Kites.
Back on the road, it was not much further on that we came upon the historic Carrathool Bridge (1924) – a hybrid timber truss bridge and a bascule span.
While staying at Paika Station just north of Balranald, Bramanda went into town to look at the Ben Scott Memorial Bird Walk. But it wasn’t there! The Murrumbidgee River was at 6.7 metres, and the walk was submerged. (The river at Balranald would go onto peak at 7.38 metres by early December).
A Magpie-lark found a tiny dry patch:
The Blue-faced Honeyeater (Entomyzon cyanotis) was taking care of two fledglings. The youngsters have an olive-green patch of skin, instead of the distinctive blue of the adults.
A pair of Australian Wood Ducks (Chenonetta jubata), with a brood to rival the one we photographed at Parramatta (see Most Ingenious ParraDucks – Sep 2, 2022), had no issue with the swollen river.
During our stay at Paika Station we encountered many birds. A large colony of Welcome Swallows(Hirundo neoxena) were roosting beneath the various eaves of the station buildings, and were a constant companion wherever we roamed on the station, even sitting on the verandah with us for afternoon ‘wine-time’.
A new bird for us: the White-breasted Woodswallow (Artamus leucorynchus). It is Australia’s largest and stoutest-billed woodswallow, widespread and common in North and North-Eastern Australia, it is a summer migrant to inland New South Wales, but is rare east of the ranges, hence we had never photographed them before.
Willy Wagtails and Sparrows were of course also there:
As soon as we arrived at Paika, and for nearly all the daylight hours of our stay, we heard an unfamiliar but lovely call. We tracked it down to this guy: the Peaceful Dove (Geopelia placida). He is easily distinguished from all other doves by his pale blue orbital skin.
And speaking of melodic calls, the introduced English Blackbird gave us plenty of song.
The Rufous Whistler (Pachycephala rufiventris). The adult male below has the white bib and rufous underparts separated by the thick black band. We take the less rufous ones below to be juveniles as the adult female is also more rufous in her underparts (though less so than the male).
The White-plumed Honeyeater (Ptilotula pencillata) is common in inland riverine areas, less common on the Sydney coast. It mainly eats insects from foliage or from the ground, but will feed on nectar when available (as here).
Another new bird for Bramanda, the Spiny-cheeked Honeyeater (Acanthagenys rufogularis) was helpfully conspicuous. Looking a but like a small Wattlebird, his bright pink bill is diagnostic among the honeyeaters. He has a wide repertoire of calls.
Another Honeyeater that we had first encountered at Mungo National Park – the Singing Honeyeater (Gavicalis virescens) was also present at Paika.
The whole region is home to many Black-shouldered Kites (Elanus axillaris). As they are semi-nomadic it is often said that their presence indicates an abundance of prey – mostly rodents, but also lizards and insects.
Common across nearly all of Australia, the Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra) was raising chicks in the arm of Lake Paika that was behind our accommodation.
A family of Black Swans (Cygnus atratus):
Sticking to a far-off corner of the lake, the Pink-eared Duck (Malacorynchus membranaceus) was difficult to photograph, even with the big lens. Luckily, his zebra-stripe plumage and almost cartoon-like bill makes him easily identifiable. (By the way, the name comes from the tiny pink patch behind the eye which is almost impossible to see… we are frequently amazed how many birds are named for the most inconspicuous part of them, when they have many more salient and unique identifying features!)
The common Australian Pelican (Pelicanus conspicullatus) proved as photogenic as they always do:
Also proving elusive, secretive and difficult to photograph was another new bird for us – the Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus). The dagger-like bill and the back-tipped chestnut cheek-frills (also called “tippets”) are unique and unmistakable, even from the distances these guys were keeping. They are almost totally silent too – apparently only calling during mating displays). The Grebes were one of the highlights of the trip. We fell in love with these guys pretty much instantly, and only regret not getting better shots.
During our stay at Paika Station, a plucky male Superb Fairy-wren, nesting in the hedge in front of our cottage, took great exception to his own reflection in the wing mirror of the car.
Obviously, he was unable to distinguish his reflection – in both the mirror and the window – from potential usurping males. He would attack his reflection tirelessly for minutes at at time, and come back every 10 minutes or so to try again. As can be seen from the photos, he often left droppings behind during these frenzies.
He seemed to be expending so much energy in this behavior that we became worried he might die of exhaustion. We tried to cover the mirrors, but the reflections in the glass of the windows were also enough to arouse his aggression. He even fought his reflection in the window of our cottage at one point.
We hope that when we left, this little guy settled down.
On our tour of Lake Mungo and the Walls of China, we were lucky enough to see our first Major Mitchell’s Cockatoos (Lophochroa leadbeateri) in the wild.
German, our guide, spotted them from a frankly amazing distance. As we got closer, the pale pink was unmistakable. They are smaller and much quieter than their cousins the Sulphur-crested Cockatoo.
Major Mitchell’s (named after an explorer of inland Australia) are found in arid and semi-arid areas of the inland, in all Australian states except Tasmania. They need wooded habitats – or at least lightly-wooded – as they lay eggs at the bottom of a vertical tree hollow, usually on a bed of rotting wood. They prefer habitats where eucalypts and acacias dominate. 3 to 4 eggs are laid, with both parents incubating. Chicks are fledged in about 4 months.
They are omivorous, and will eat the seeds of grasses, shrubs and trees. They will take small roots and bulbs, as well as insect larvae and grubs. They mostly forage on the ground – sometimes in groups of other cockatoos like galahs and corellas – but will also eat in the branches of a tree. The one we saw in the tree was taking great delight in a Paddy Melon (Cucumis myriocarpus).
These birds are sadly now listed as Vulnerable in New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria.
Arriving at Paika Station, we dropped our stuff for a quick turn-around, and were picked up for a guided tour of Mungo National Park, and the famous “Walls of China”.
First stop was the historic Homebush Hotel, 27kms north of Balranald, one of NSW’s “true” outback pubs, which has been operating since 1878. Our tour of four people were the only patrons – but the publican told us that 500+ visitors were expected on the weekend after the funeral of a popular local identity!
After a quick beer, we were driven the 120km north to “Lake” Mungo with a few roadside stops along the way.
At Mungo, we stopped at the Visitor’s Centre, and took a look at the historic Woolshed. This shearing shed was part of the old Gol Gol Sheep Station from a time before this was a National Park. It is made from local Cypress pine using the “drop-log” technique (a technique thought to have been introduced to Australia by Chinese immigrants). Ironically, it was the intense grazing of the enormous flocks of sheep, and the felling of so much local Cypress that led to the erosion which revealed and created the formations we were about to see.
High in the sky, a Black Kite circled, but our attention was grabbed by this Singing Honeyeater (Lichenostomus virescens) who posed for us near the old water tank, looking suitably “outback”. The Singing Honeyeater is one of the most widely occurring honeyeaters in Australia (though absent in Tasmania), but is rare in eastern NSW.
Not only is Lake Mungo part of the Willandra Lakes World Heritage area, and the site of important archaeological finds, it is also culturally significant to Indigenous Australians. It is a sacred site and burial ground, and the discovery of many middens and footprints mark the area as an important meeting place for First Nations people. As well as the discovery of the 42,000 year old burial of Mungo Man, the burnt remains of Mungo Woman have been found, and are the oldest record of human cremation found anywhere on Earth. Legend has it this stone memorial to Indigenous Guide Leslie Taylor (1966 – 2003) was planned to be erected elsewhere, but fell off the truck at this location. This was taken as a sign that the monument should rest here.
The “Walls of China” is a low, curving line of sandy hills – a Lunette – that arcs around the eastern shore of the dry lakebed of Mungo. A lunette is defined as a single, massive dune ridge of sand and clay blown up from a lake bed. The lunette at Mungo is approximately 20 metres high, 200 metres wide, and extends for nearly 30 kilometres. Wind and rain erosion has carved the lunette into dramatic formations and features. The system is as fragile as it is beautiful. Today, visitors cannot walk out onto the lunette unless they are part of a guided tour by a registered tour operator.
We had booked the Sunset Tour, as this is famously the best time to view and photograph these formations. With record rainfalls bearing down on South West NSW, our booking had to be changed twice, but due to the organizational and driving skills of Amanda, we were fortunate enough to make the one window available for the Sunset Tour before the rains closed the Park for many days.
Trying to eliminate my own shadow from a pic…
A bird highlight was seeing a pair of Major Mitchell Cockatoos (see “Major Look”). Our guide also identified some furtive and fast moving Rainbow Bee-eaters (Merops ornatus) which we weren’t able to photograph, but Welcome Swallows were making their homes amongst the dunes in plentiful numbers:
As the sun dipped lower and lower still, the light was changing minute to minute, bathing the formations in an everchanging range of colour. As German our guide said – cameras love these colours! At the risk of sounding all New Age and Herbal… it really was a magical and strange location to be in at sunset. You’d have to be pretty hard-hearted not to be affected by it.
On the fringes of Leeton, Fivebough and Tuckerbill Wetlands are Ramsar listed reserves protected under the convention as Wetlands of International Importance. By all reports, they are a bird-watching hot-spot. 86 species of water bird have been recorded there, 64 species have been recorded as breeding there. At the height of summer migration, upwards of 20,000 individual birds have regularly been counted.
So it was a bit frustrating that on our visit, we did not see many birds at all! Admittedly, we arrived late morning: we daresay that early morning and late afternoon probably makes for better viewing. And we heard a lot of birds that we could not see – the walls of reeds and rushes were so tall and so dense that there was very little chance of getting a lens on a bird.
For the first half an hour or so, all we really saw were kangaroos:
We did however get to see the Magpie Goose (Anseranas semipalmata), listed as Threatened in NSW, and which had to be re-introduced in Victoria and South Australia. It is easily identified by its lankiness and bulging cranial knob. It is the only member of the family Anserantidae, so stands apart from all other waterfowl.
A Golden-headed Cisticola (Cisticola exilis):
As well the common Australian White Ibis (Threskiornis molucca) in the next two pictures, we also spotted Straw-necked Ibises (Threskiornis spinicollis) in flight a few times (the pictures below). Whenever they alighted however, they were too far away for photography. We were also on the lookout for the Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) which we had read is a frequent visitor to Fivebough – but to no avail.
Finally a male Variegated Fairy Wren (Malurus lamberti) obliged by sitting in the open.
Stopping at a raised viewing platform allowing a view of the wetlands over the tops of the tall reeds, we ironically got our best pics in the small, shady scrub beneath the viewing platform, when a male and female Variegated Fairy Wren chased each other through the shadows.
The Grey-crowned Babbler (Pomatostomus temporalis) is the largest of Australia’s Babblers, and is now listed as Endangered in Victoria. They will feed from the ground, but mainly glean insects from trees. They are the most arboreal of the Babblers, and can be hard to spot in foliage. Their almost incessant, low group chatter (babble, I guess) is usually the first indication they are nearby.
The Yellow-throated Miner (Manorina flavigula) has a much wider range than the Noisy Miner, and is therefore more common. But in NSW they occur only west of the ranges. So being from Sydney where every second bird we see is a Noisy Miner, Bramanda was disproportionately excited to see and photograph this slightly smaller and paler Yellow-throated member of the Genus.
A White-plumed Honeyeater (Ptilotula pencillata):
The Black-shouldered Kite (Elanus axillaris) can often been seen hovering in a near vertical position, as he drops onto prey feet first.
A juvenile Rufous Whistler (Pachycephala rufiventris) was conspicuous by its song:
Back at the car, we loaded our gear into the back very sedately, as a Red-bellied Black Snake (Pseudechisporphyriacus) had decided to curl up in the shadow of the car’s rear wheel.
We arrived back at our Leeton accommodation, and sat on a picnic blanket in the backyard, when a young Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike landed in a nearby treetop, and posed for as many photos as we wanted.