Good birding; important work; challenging and harshly beautiful environment; a very companionable group – the core elements of a really rewarding expedition.
Driven by passion, a team of eight experienced volunteer bird surveyors descended on Naree Reserve in September 2019. The task: to survey 640 sites, each of two hectares, and to count all the birds within those sites.
Perhaps viewed by some to be a strange breed, outback bird surveyors are a dedicated lot. Armed with hat and fly net, binoculars and GPS swinging, our team would enthusiastically set off well before dawn to find and count the birds. Led by the inimitable Richard Jordan, we did this for eight days, venturing far and wide on both Naree and Yantabulla reserves.
Spending 20 minutes at each site among the flies, dust and rising heat, our eyes and ears sharply tuned, we scanned each site intensively. Sometimes we recorded only one bird, other times hundreds of birds from many species. We repeated this survey method ten times at other sites until noon.
Clambering through the lignum and weaving cautiously through the dagger sharp branches of dead mulga, the team did not relent, spurred on by the thought that something exciting could be just around the corner. And, it often was!
Rose gushed with excitement when she found a Painted Honeyeater, her first. Janet modestly revealed she had found five Orange Chats, and on our last day Neil returned to base triumphant with his Inland Dotterel sighting.
Under the Coolabahs, on the claypans and amongst the shrubs, we searched, we found, we identified and we counted, and counted!
We achieved our 640 site surveys, over 12,800 survey minutes (that's about 213 hours), and counted a total of 13,442 birds from 107 species. And, we felt jubilant with our efforts!
This kind of data is not common. Hard earned, valuable data, collected systematically over a number of years can reveal how bird populations are faring, and guide Bush Heritage Australia's management decisions.
This was the second year of spring bird surveys at Naree and Yantabulla. In late 2017 Richard Jordan, then Convenor of BirdLife Northern NSW, was asked by Bush Heritage to commence annual bird surveys in Naree and Yantabulla Reserves.
Naree is owned by Bush Heritage which also manages Yantabulla under an agreement with the South Endeavour Trust. Both properties are in the Paroo Floodplain/Currawinya Key Biodiversity Area, and are therefore an important component of the Murray-Darling Basin.
A long-term assessment of the birdlife of this habitat will help inform catchment-wide water planning in the years ahead. In 2018 97 bird species were recorded, which may represent a low point for both the range of species and their abundance, since the 12 months before the counts were the driest since records began in 1995.
In 2019 there was a substantial fall of rain in April, which coincided with a flood moving into the properties along the Cuttaburra Creek from earlier heavy rainfall in Central Queensland. When our bird surveys took place in late September 2019 there was still surface water around from that event. Consequently, more species were recorded at the sites (107) and bird abundance was greater for most species.
An exception were the mixed flocks of Masked and White-browed Woodswallows. Numbers of these birds were spectacular in 2018, when the Yapunyah were flowering massively. They were still common, but more modestly so, this spring.
As the days passed, I became consumed by the colours of the landscape at sunrise. Blue-grey mulga on red soil against a pale violet sky formed a striking palette when adorned with foraging Red-capped Robins, Splendid Fairy-wrens and Mulga Parrots. Often chiming in the distance, the Crested Bellbird added to the cheerful mood of the landscape at this time of day.
The beauty and potential hostility of the environment were palpable. Not much room for error. Our safety was clearly a high priority with Bush Heritage. Reserve Manager Greg's brief, the grab bags, radio contact and check-in system gave me confidence. I pondered the generations of people who have lived in this landscape without today's technology. Evidence of that presence, artefacts hundreds and thousands of years old, decorates the landscape. I felt insignificant and comparatively inadequate in my skills to survive in the manner they did. A deep respect for past custodians emerged.
Our “donga” home at Naree was shared with Brown Treecreepers, Crimson Chats, Southern Whitefaces, White-winged Fairy-wrens and lots of Woodswallows, Masked, Black-faced and White-browed. The resident Red-backed Kingfisher would often sit on the powerlines piping away.
I was harshly scolded (deservedly) by a Spotted Bowerbird for unwittingly setting up my birdwatching chair in his domain near the lagoon. A pair of Black-breasted Buzzards circled low, making a very close inspection of the strange figures in khaki, nets over their faces. An exciting reminder that we were visitors to this landscape.
Afternoons weren't spent lounging around. This team couldn't help themselves. Scurrying off to far corners of Naree to... yes, look for birds! That is, except for Richard, master of the data, who remained at camp diligently entering all the sightings. Evenings revealed an altogether different picture. The bird surveyors of the day morphed into master chefs at night as gourmet meal after gourmet meal was prepared and shared by all. Other talents emerged. We had artists, musicians and fascinating raconteurs in our midst.
There was great camaraderie and as it drew to an end I felt a strong reluctance to leave. I was confident that I had made a worthy contribution, but was also mindful that I had gained so much more from the experience. Not least, a not so unexpected affection for everything that is Naree (and Yantabulla), and for “her beauty and her terror”. 1
I'm already looking forward to next year's survey. Fingers crossed there will be a flooding event before long that triggers widespread waterbird breeding on the Naree and Yantabulla ephemeral lakes and floodplains. That will be something to behold!
1 My Country, Dorothea Mackellar