A field report from the Naree and Yantabulla reserves bird survey of September 2022.
What a wonderful way to spend two weeks in early Spring – surveying birds with a companionable team of expert ‘birdos’ in the beautiful Mulga and Box woodlands and flood plains of the Paroo and Warrego River systems at Naree and adjoining Yantabulla reserves, approximately 150km north-west of Bourke.
After two days of travelling, we were welcomed to the region by a large flock of Brolgas, dancing and feeding in a road-side swamp near Fords Bridge, filled by the recent rains.
Greg Carroll, the manager, welcomed us to the station, starting with an acknowledgement of the Budjiti People and passing on a welcome to country. He then inducted the group to the ins and outs of operating safely on the remote outback properties. Most of the team were old hands, however, for three of us, including me, this was our first experience. The group comprised volunteers from all walks of life with a shared interest in birdlife.
We were very lucky to have Richard Jordan in our team. Richard first set up the survey in 2018, so now Birdlife Australia and Bush Heritage have five years of data collected - an invaluable resource for assessing the status and trends of the rich bird populations in this Paroo Floodplain/ Currawinya Key Biodiversity Area.
Amanda, our excellent team leader, explained the history and aims of the survey, then outlined the procedures we were to follow. Rod, with unlimited patience, backed up the program by working wonders with the data management, GPS and IT systems that are essential to a successful survey.
On our first night at Naree we were treated to a series of dramatic storms. Just 3 mm of rain was enough to leave large pools of water lying on the roads and claypans. The country looked fantastic after extraordinarily good rains over the preceding months.
Fortunately, only a very small number of the 36 survey sites were rendered inaccessible by waterlogged floodplains. It emphasised how important a certain amount of flexibility is to successfully surveying this region. While waiting for the roads to dry out, we spent the first day familiarising ourselves with the birdlife, the GPS equipment and the country within walking distance of the homestead. Everyone was rearing to go by dawn the next morning for day one of our formal survey. The weather was kind to us for the next two weeks.
Masses of Eremophila shrubs (Emu or Turkey Bush) were in full flower, as were the Cassias, Desert Bloodwoods, a multitude of daisies and many other wildflowers, their colours contrasting beautifully with the red soils and olive-grey foliage that clothed the arid-lands.
Correspondingly, the bird and insect life was rich and plentiful, though several people commented the insect life was not yet in full swing – perhaps too cold. The flies didn’t know this, so most of us wore flynets over our hats to avoid going mad. I only swallowed about 20.
The sites alternated between Mulga woodlands, flowering shrublands, swamps and permanent waterholes, ephemeral wetlands, alluvial floodplains and Poplar Box woodlands. Flocks of adolescent Emus, usually with an attentive father, were common. One fatherless group of teenage emus followed me around for at least 10 minutes while I was surveying in the Mulga. Every time I looked behind me, there they were, a few feet away.
A highlight, literally and figuratively, were the groups of Crimson Chats we saw in the shrublands. The rich crimson plumage of the male birds glowed like beacons as they called and displayed to each other in the early morning sun.
On the eastern edge of the property, we watched smaller flocks of Budgerigars coalesce into huge flocks to wheel and turn, flashing emerald in the sun as they did so. A large flock of about 500 birds flew overhead with a Nankeen Kestrel in its midst. I was, at first, perplexed that such a small raptor would chase a bird the size of a Budgerigar until the more expert ornithologists explained the Budgerigars actually mob the Kestrel.
In the same area, some of our team watched a Peregrine Falcon successfully hunting Budgerigars.
Other parrots commonly seen included the Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo, Blue Bonnet, Australian Ringneck, Mulga Parrot, Bourke’s Parrot, Cockatiel, Galah and a small number of the Red-winged Parrot. Four species of Babbler (Chestnut-crowned Babbler, Grey-crowned Babbler, White-browed Babbler, Halls Babbler) and three species of Fairy-wren (White-winged Fairy-wren, Splendid Fairy-wren, Variegated (Purple-backed) Fairy-wren) occur in the area.
White-browed Woodswallows, Masked Woodswallows, Black-faced Woodswallows and White-breasted Woodswallows, Fairy Martins and Tree Martins hawked insects overhead. We listened carefully for the soft piping calls of Black Honeyeaters and Pied Honeyeaters amongst the flowering shrubs, while the beautiful and unmistakeable call of the Crested Bellbird carried for such a long way it was sometimes difficult to judge if they were inside or outside our survey radius.
An Eastern Barn Owl lived near the homestead – many of us heard its screeching call during the night. One of the girls was lucky enough to be owl-swooped on a foray to the outside bathroom one night. Throughout our stay, Jupiter was brilliant in the clear night sky from sunset to sunrise.
On our first day at Naree, we all placed bets on the total number of species we expected to see during the survey - not one of us actually guessed we would reach a total of 126 species identified; 102 species identified during the surveys with an additional 24 species identified at other times.
For some in the group, one or two species remained elusive, including the Chestnut-breasted Quail-thrush. Those who did see this bird commented on how bold and visible this usually shy bird was. As the days warmed, I was surprised to see a number of Bearded Dragons sunning themselves high in the upper branches of roadside shrubs.
Feral animal control is one of the many jobs that keeps Greg busy as the station manager. Efforts to reduce numbers of goats, foxes, cats and pigs are reaping their rewards, though it is a never-ending battle. After the good rains, pig populations, in particular, have exploded over much of Australia, including Naree Station and Yantabulla, so we always kept a sharp eye out for them to avoid any confrontations.
We surveyed in the mornings, returning to base around midday after a cuppa in the bush, to enter the bird data recorded in the preceding few hours.
Over a cup of bush tea, we learned about each other’s lives back home and solved a few of the world’s problems. Two at a time in the early evening, people in our team took turns to cook delicious dinners while the crew entertained each other, swapping stories and photographs and discussing a wide range of subjects, including (of course) politics and conservation. The grand finale was a celebratory dinner on the last night for a significant birthday, so birthday cakes were whipped up from secret ingredients, bubbly uncorked, candles lit. The birthday song was accompanied by some very good playing by one of our musicians on her ukulele.
We left Naree and Yantabulla reserves on the last day of September, just in time to avoid being flooded in by heavy rains. Greg reported 83 mm in the weeks after we left, starting a few days after our departure.
I had the most wonderful time during our survey, made possible by a terrific group of people to share the days with. I suspect it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to experience this country at its most vibrant, after such good rains in the preceding year. The rains are the lifeblood of a system superbly adapted to doing without water for much of the time.
The landscape, the flora, the birds, and other inhabitants of this land have a beauty and presence that gets under your skin.
Thank you to Bush Heritage and the people involved for the work they do in conserving and restoring this precious region and all it contains. I’ll be back!