Birding in the Kimberley
Many people dream of touring the Kimberley in North West Australia. For birders, the pleasure is manifold. The variety and beauty of the birds is intoxicating. Even species found elsewhere in Australia, such as Weebills and Rufous Whistlers, are brighter in the Kimberley. It is almost as though they have absorbed the rich colours of the earth.
Not everyone has the time, resources or opportunity to take a specialised birding tour. Many, like me, will be reduced to catching glimpses and a quick snapshot, before scrambling to catch up to the ever moving tour group. With this kind of journey in mind, I will provide an overview of the birds that I encountered whilst on a (non-birding) tour of the Kimberley in July a few years back.
The first part of our tour (which started in Broome and ended in Darwin), followed the Gibb River Road, stopping to camp at Windjana and Manning Gorges.
At Windjana Gorge, I learned that some birds are less than elusive. You don’t find them, they find you. The Great Bowerbird is one of these. What it lacks in brightly coloured plumage (it is a large dull brown grey bird, with a lovely patch of pink on its nape), it more than makes up for in personality.
Before the tent pegs were in place, a few of these birds had positioned themselves in a tree nearby to study our food, and bower ‘enhancing’, potential. One even lured me from my lunch by posing for a photo. As soon as I rose from the picnic table with camera in hand, the crafty fellow swooped down and nabbed my sandwich. Black Kite
Circling overhead, meanwhile, were up to 10 Black Kites. No wonder they are known locally as the ‘Kimberley Seagull’!
With dusk, came a cacophony of noise as a flock of Little Corellas descended to their roosts by the river’s edge. The Black Kites and a family of Red-tailed Black-Cockatoos settled into trees close to our tent. Nearby was a small group of Peaceful Doves, doing their best to imitate fruit on the limbs of a boab tree. It was a magical start to our Kimberley holiday.
On the first night I didn’t notice a gang of Blue-winged Kookaburras roosting in a tree above our tent. Well, not until 5 o’clock in the morning, when a maniacal chorus of noise exploded. Some sounds of the Kimberley are unforgettable!
On our way from Windjana Gorge to Manning Gorge, we stopped at Bell Gorge. The path to Bell Gorge follows (in part) a small creek lined with Pandanus (aquaticus) palms. Here, I caught my first glimpse of the adorable Double-barred Finch, stopping to watch as the perky little characters hopped and twittered about the palms.
Bar-breasted Honeyeater nests dangled from leaves over the water as a White-gaped Honeyeater peered at me while hanging upside down from the gum leaves. Even more surprising however, was the Black Bittern that skulked across the road in front of our car as we left Bell Gorge. This awkward looking bird, with its long neck determinedly out-stretched, looked so ridiculous that even the non-birders in the car looked at it in amazement.
The heavily treed campsite at Manning Gorge, and the nearby lagoon, are gorgeous. In addition to Silver-crowned and Little Friarbirds, White-bellied Cuckoo-shrikes and Torresian Crows (which are found at most campsites), I saw Crimson Finches (which were almost never crimson) and Bar-breasted Honeyeaters at the lagoon. A gang of Rainbow Lorikeets loitered near the shower/toilet block. Though these lorikeets are now common through much of Australia, the Kimberley race, rubritorquis, is arguably the most beautiful. White-bellied Cuckoo-shrike It has a bright orange-red collar (unlike the Eastern race, moluccanus, which has a yellow-green collar) and deep, dark blue-black feathers on its chest.
We left Gibb River Road and bumped our way north along the road to Kalumburu and the Mitchell Plateau. Kalumburu mission is the northernmost permanent settlement in Western Australia. The camping area is well-equipped, with toilets, showers, a washing machine and an infestation of Rainbow Bee-eaters constantly hawking for insects above your head. I was told that a Collared Sparrowhawk also visits the camping area (though I didn’t see it). In the morning, Straw-necked Ibis and Masked Lapwings tottered about the tents. As always, the sewerage ponds (located behind the airstrip) offered the best birding opportunity, with regulars including Pied Herons, White-necked Herons and dozens of anxious-looking Plumed Whistling-Ducks. White-breasted Woodswallows
Along Kalumburu Road is the turnoff to Mitchell Plateau. Miners Pool is the first main campsite along the way. It is an unexpected birding paradise. What it lacks in glamour (the camp site is bare with facilities limited to 44 gallon drums masquerading as toilets), it more than makes up for in birdlife. In the trees around our tents, I saw Varied Lorikeets, Banded Honeyeaters, White-bellied Cuckoo-shrikes, Double-barred Finches, Rufous Whistlers, a Pied Butcherbird, Jacky Winters, Yellow-tinted Honeyeaters, Red-backed Fairy-wrens, Olive-backed Orioles, White-throated Honeyeaters, Black-chinned Honeyeaters and tiny lemon-coloured Weebills.
But the fun really began at the river, near to the car park. Next to the swimming hole, there is a large dead tree that is the roosting site for over a dozen White-breasted Woodswallows. Both nights we stayed here, these irascible little birds arrived at the tree at around 4.30pm, with up to 10 crammed onto one short branch. When a Whistling Kite arrived and dislodged them from their favourite possie, outrage ensued. One by one, ‘kamikaze’ pilots were dispatched to harass the imposter until he left, and order was again restored in the woodswallow kingdom. Who couldn’t love a woodswallow?
The river bank to the right of the swimming hole is studded with pandanus, flowering gums and the occasional fallen down tree. I sat by the river edge. There, I found an endless procession of small birds willing to make my acquaintance, including the beautiful Purple-crowned Fairy-wrens, Crimson Finches, Double-barred Finches, Bar-breasted Honeyeaters, Rufous-throated Honeyeaters and a highly-strung Restless Flycatcher (who evidently thought I was ‘bad for business’). On the outlying branches of a dead tree sat a Little Pied Cormorant, colloquially called the “Kimberley Penguin”. Between the riverbank and the campsite there were a series of muddy puddles that proved ideal for bathing - for birds, that is. I watched for over 30 minutes as a succession of fluffed up birds dipped in and out of the water. The most common were juvenile and adult Yellow-tinted Honeyeaters and Banded Honeyeaters. The Purple-crowned Fairy-wren juvenile Banded Honeyeaters were remarkable in their colouring, which was completely different to the adults. Whilst the adults are entirely black and white, the juveniles are various shades of brown with bright yellow stripes behind the eyes. Unlike other honeyeaters, they go through up to 4 distinctive plumage phases before attaining full adult plumage.
Also bathing were Little Friarbirds and a Black-fronted Dotterel.
From Miners Pool we went to Mitchell Falls. This is the best place to spot the rare Black Grasswren. If you take the main trail from the car park, these birds are said to congregate in the area around Little Merten Falls. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time to stop and look for them. But I did see a male Red-backed Fairy-wren and a pair of Variegated Fairy-wrens. The female Variegated Fairy-wren was of the race rogersi. She had a very distinctive light chestnut band around her eyes and her tail was noticeably bluer than the other races. Variegated Fairy-wren (F) The male Red-backed Fairy-wren was stunning. I saw many of these at various camping sites, but they were always pale brown in colour. This is the only one I saw in full breeding plumage. Michael Morcombe in his Field Guide to Australian Birds explains (at p224) that “…older, dominant males moult direct to their new colourful breeding plumage, completely missing the dull eclipse stage”.
Northern Rosellas are also said to be common around Mitchell Falls. Northern Rosella I did not see any here, but I did see them and a pair of Diamond Doves in the parking area close to the junction of Gibb River and Kalumburu roads. Being used to the brightly coloured Western Rosella of southern Western Australia, I was amazed to see how different its northern cousin was. With a black head, white cheeks and yellow and blue wing feathers, it is a strikingly beautiful bird, quite unlike any other rosella in Australia.
We rejoined the Gibb River Road after a quick stop at Drysdale River Service Station (where I saw a low flying Square-tailed Kite and Long-tailed and Masked Finches taking a bath under the sprinklers). Square-tailed Kite Our last stop along this road, at El Questro, was the most glamorous. Our guide described it as a ‘4wd adventurer’s playground’. The luxury of it (at least compared to what we had previously experienced) extended to a bar, restaurant, washing machines and rows of toilet/shower huts. It is one of the most accessible places along the Gibb River road (being just 110 kilometres from Kununurra). As you can imagine, it is very popular. There are many 4wd and walking trails providing good opportunities for bird watching.
We stayed in the ‘tours’ campsite area. Frequent visitors to this area included a Leaden Flycatcher, Magpie Larks, Little Corellas, Blue-winged Kookaburras and a pair of bug-eyed Blue-faced Honeyeaters. The Kimberley race (albipennis) of these curious birds differs from the Eastern States races in that it has a distinctive white underwing patch (which you don’t always have time to notice when one swoops in to steal your bread roll). Little Woodswallow
I also saw a posse of excitable Little Woodswallows diligently guarding Brancos Lookout.
After leaving the Gibb River Road, we travelled to Purnululu National Park (Bungle Bungles), via Wyndham. Wyndham is not a town to inspire romantic poetry, but it does offer some value for the avid birder. In the trees opposite the Post Office I heard what sounded like the exuberant yapping of puppies. This could be only one species – a Grey-crowned Babbler! The Kimberley race, rubeculus, boasts, as its name suggests, a warm chestnut coloured chest.
Birding’s piece de resistance in this area is about 20 kilometres south of Wyndham, along the Great Northern Highway. This is Parry Lagoons Nature Reserve, covering 36,000 hectares. This reserve is listed under the RAMSAR Convention as a Wetland of International Importance. I could not name every species said to visit here, but in the 20 minutes the tour guide allotted to me, Magpie Goose I was able to see (without binoculars) Magpie Geese, Brolgas, Comb-crested Jacanas, Royal Spoonbills, Star Finches, Australasian Pipits, Nankeen Night-Herons (juvenile and adult), Wandering Whistling-Ducks, Plumed Whistling-Ducks, an Azure Kingfisher, a Red-backed Kingfisher, Green Pygmy-Geese, Radjah Shelducks, an Intermediate Egret, an Eastern Great Egret and a Black-necked Stork.
Restless Flycatcher By the time we arrived at Purnululu National Park (Bungle Bungles) I had seen many new and different birds, but I was far from satisfied. No trip to the Kimberley would be complete, I thought, without having seen Red-winged Parrots, Spinifex Pigeons and the beautiful Gouldian Finch.
As soon as our tents had been erected, I grabbed my camera and resumed the hunt. I was rewarded later that afternoon when at last I spied a flock of Red-winged Parrots gliding in to roost in the tall gum trees dotted around the ‘quiet’ end of the campsite. Here, too, I encountered some Black-chinned Honeyeaters, a Restless flycatcher, Long-tailed Finches and a very friendly, puffed up, Red-backed Fairy-wren. My husband came across about 30 Brown Quails loitering near a water tap, but they steadfastly refused to reappear for me.
The next morning we woke to the distant howling of dingos, which made a change from the kookaburras’ usual 5am wake up call. We walked to the lookout, about 1 km from the camping area. Along the way we spied Varied Lorikeets feeding by the roadside and Black-faced Woodswallows perched grumpily on barren tree limbs (are they ever happy?) At the lookout, I saw my first Zebra Finches. A flock of the chirpy fellows flitted in and out of the shrubs enjoying the early morning sun. Behind them was the unmistakable outline of the domes of Purnululu. It was a magical sight.
Our last stop was Lake Argyle. To my delight, we were greeted on arrival by a small gathering of Spinifex Pigeons. To the non-birders on my tour, my reaction to these pigeons must have seemed incredible. I gasped and spluttered and tore from the vehicle at record speed. Who could not love a masked bird with a spiked hairdo high enough to make Elvis blush? Spinifex Pigeon Unlike their cousins in the Pilbara (ferruginea), the Kimberley race (plumifera) has a white patch across their well-rounded tummies.
At the southern end of the campsite, a Great Bowerbird laboured under a tree, fine-tuning his bower. As my husband erected the tent, I watched as a thorough inspection took place. It started at the ‘back’ entrance, where the Great Bowerbird stood and peered through the twin-walled bower. Tentatively, he stepped inside, and paused. He looked at the left wall, then at the right wall. Occasionally a piece of straw or stick required repositioning. He stepped forward again and inspected the next section of the walls just as carefully. At last he reached the ‘front’ entrance. He stopped and assessed the collection of white and grey stones under his feet. One was misplaced. A small white stone was picked up and moved two centimetres to the right. Great Bowerbird
Lake Argyle is said to be visited by over 270 species of birds, including Gouldian Finches (apparently common around the campsite), Long-toed Stints, Oriental Plovers, Yellow Chats, White-quilled Rock Pigeons, Sandstone Shrike-thrushes and Australian Painted Snipes. There is a full day birdwatching safari cruise that has sighted up to 113 species in one day. The tour operator, Greg Smith of Lake Argyle Cruises, has a wealth of knowledge on local birds.
Unfortunately, the birdwatching cruise was not on our itinerary so I never got to see the Yellow Chat or snipe. When we left Lake Argyle, and said goodbye to the Kimberley, I also had yet to see a Gouldian Finch. But I knew I would be back. Someday...
Keywords: Australia, Bar-breasted, Honeyeaters, Kimberley, Western, birding, birds, native, north-west, safari, tour
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