The Races …

Birdsville, Queensland, has a population of about 100. The annual races are run in the first week of September. T’other day all roads were closed and the track was underwater. The camp grounds were a sea of mud, you grew taller as you walked about.

The weather forecast for …

Thursday 1 September

Summary
Min 14
Max 22
Rain.
Possible rainfall: 25 to 40 mm
Chance of any rain: 100%

Cloudy. Very high (near 100%) chance of rain. The chance of a thunderstorm. Heavy falls possible. Winds east to southeasterly 15 to 20 km/h turning southerly during the morning then tending northwest to northeasterly 25 to 40 km/h during the afternoon.

courtesy of the BoM on August 30th.

Tipped to win …

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Birdsville …

Hot on the heels of the explorers came the settlers. The rangelands will carry sheep and cattle. The stocking rate is extremely low but there’s plenty of country. Rainfall is fickle, the good years can give rise to optimism that fries all too quickly in the dry years that follow.

Birdsville came into being as Diamantina Crossing in 1881. Its reason for existence was simple, before the foundation of the Commonwealth of Australia the individual colonies thought it necessary to protect their economies with tariffs. Birdsville is on a droving route used to take northern cattle to southern markets and located just north of the South Australia – Queensland border. It was there to collect taxes.

Tax collecting is thirsty work. It had three hotels and a cordial factory. The population in 1900 was over 300. Its role as a tax collector ceased at Federation in 1901. It was downhill after that, at least for a while.

Not far to the west in the Simpson Desert is Sturt’s furthest north, reached in September 1845 …

We had penetrated to a point at which water and feed had both failed … The spinifex was close and matted, and the horses were obliged to lift their feet straight up to avoid its sharp points. From the summit of a sandy undulation close upon our right, we saw that the ridges extended northwards in parallel lines beyond the range of vision, and appeared as if interminable. To the eastward and westward they succeeded each other like the waves of the sea. The sand was of a deep red colour, and a bright narrow line of it marked the top of each ridge, amidst the sickly pink and glaucous coloured vegetation around.

After Sturt it was the turn of the surveyors.  Augustus Poeppel marked the point where Queensland, South Australia and New South Wales meet. He was in error by 300 metres. The error was corrected four years later by Larry Wells. Then in 1886 David Lindsay penetrated deep into the desert from the west.

To that point no european had gone in one side and come out the other. Ted Colson put that right in May 1936. He set out from his cattle station on the west of the desert with an aboriginal companion, Peter Ains, and five camels, followed the 26th parallel to Birdsville, had a beer in the pub and four days later turned around and crossed the desert again.

Cecil Madigan came next leading a scientific expedition, again on camels but by a more northerly route.

Nowadays the explorers come by 4WD. The first to cross the Simpson by car was Reg Sprigg with the wife and kids. It was September 1962. Since then Birdsville’s fortunes have improved. Thousands come for the races, the bold drive up via the Birdsville Track, the intrepid come across the Simpson. We all make a point of stopping here …

Birdsville Hotel

 

 

 

The desert …

Min Min Way

Let any man lay the map of Australia before him, and regard the blank upon its surface, and then let me ask him if it would not be an honourable achievement to be the first to place foot in its centre.

Wrote Charles Sturt, who left Adelaide in 1844 with 11 horses; 30 bullocks; 1 boat and carriage; 1 horse dray; 1 spring cart; 3 drays, 200 sheep; 4 kangaroo dogs; 2 sheep dogs … and an inexplicable tendency to switch between commas and semicolons in the one list. He was the leader of a group of 16 men. They were the first to put their shoes in many places but other feet had always preceded theirs and they fell short of the geographic centre of Australia by 150 miles.

This was Sturt’s third, and final, major foray. The party was in the field 18 months, they had to contend with extremes of drought, near starvation and heat that burst their thermometers. One, Mr Poole, died of scurvy. They were the first Europeans to reach the heart, some would later say the dead heart, of the Lake Eyre basin.

We may find it a little odd that he would take a boat on such an excursion but his prior expeditions had entailed considerable journeys on the Murray and Darling Rivers and he was exploring at a time when people still expected to find an inland sea or at least the Australian equivalent of a Nile or Mississippi.

Sturt was a great bushman, a very determined explorer and distinguished, too, by treating the aborigines that he encountered with respect and consideration. He also brought most of his men back alive.

A little to the north of Blackbraes National Park, Mark and I had already crossed the tracks of Ludwig Leichhardt and Augustus Charles Gregory. In 1844 Leichhardt had travelled from the vicinity of Brisbane north west across the base of Cape York, continuing beneath the Gulf of Carpentaria and then north to the settlement of Port Essington (not far from modern day Darwin). From there he had sailed back to Brisbane by boat. Augustus Charles Gregory’s 1855-56 expedition did the boat ride first. From near where Leichhardt finished his land journey Gregory headed south west and following a river that he named in honour of Charles Sturt. His most westerly point on that expedition is now known as Lake Gregory. He then followed Leichhardt’s route back east to Gladstone. Both of these explorers led later expeditions.

The map that Sturt thought so blank has a little more written on it these days but there is still room to write the names of pretty small places in pretty large letters. Mark and I drove into the desert via the Min Min Way. We intersected the track of other exploring parties before we met with Sturt’s. One, of course, is the track of Burke and Wills. Sixteen years after Sturt set off from Adelaide Burke’s expedition left Melbourne with the intention of crossing the entire continent south to north. In that Burke was entirely successful although he intended to follow that with another crossing north to south.

We also crossed the 1858 track of Augustus Charles Gregory. Sturt discovered and bestowed the European name on Cooper’s Creek. Gregory, who obviously had high regard for Sturt, travelled from south east Queensland to Adelaide via Cooper’s Creek.

Burke and Wills ensured that Cooper’s Creek would hold an enduring place in Australian history by dying on its banks.

At some point we must also have crossed the track of Leichhardt’s 1848 expedition that left Queensland intending to cross the continent east to west. None of the seven men that set out ever returned, their track and where they perished is unknown.

Desert Sky

We were travelling in an air-conditioned 4WD with a fridge full of beer, well, almost full, there was some food as well. Our intention was to spend a few days looking for the world’s most venomous snake, the Inland Taipan Oxyuranus microlepidotus. This is found on the deeply cracking black soils of the Diamantina and Cooper Creek drainage systems, more often in the cracks than on the surface. It preys on the Long-haired Rat. The principle vegetation on the black soil is Lignum and that is home to the much sought after Grey Grasswren which we had both seen before but would have been very happy to see again.

So we spent most of our time floundering around Lignum bushes, camera at the ready, sweat running down our backs, trying to beat the flies away from our faces, one foot down a crack, the other raised in readiness for the next crack and in imagination, at least, every crack containing a Taipan. And that was absolute luxury when compared to the explorers who showed us the way out there.

“Don’t you want to photograph the Taipan?” asked Mark.

“Of course I do”, says I.

“Then why have you got the telephoto lens on?”

“Because I’d rather photograph the world’s most venomous snake at a distance”.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for the photographs of snake or grasswren. We saw neither. So I shall say no more of them. I will concentrate on the scenery between lignum swamps and tales of the great explorers.

Blackbraes …

Having turned our heads to the south west our first step took us to Blackbraes National Park. Once again we would make a fleeting visit to a spot that really deserved a lengthier stay.

Blackbraes is a remote park on a dirt highway, close to the middle of the base of Cape York. Head west from there into the gulf country, the gulf in question being the Gulf of Carpentaria. East would take you to the Great Dividing Range and subsequently the coast at Townsville. Given the nature of the road, after heavy rain you ain’t heading anywhere for a while.

The park is above 800 metres altitude (~2,500 feet) and therefore a little cooler and wetter than the surrounding area. It is a mosaic of dry woodland, rocky outcrops and open grassy plains. The camp site is 20 km from the park gate adjacent to dam wall that has produced an extensive shallow wetland. More information can be found <HERE>. You need to book and pay for your camp site online prior to your visit and I wish you every success in dealing with the Queensland parks website.

Around and about we caught up with some ground dwelling birds including the Australian Bustard …

Aussie Bustard

Squatter pigeon …

Squatter Pigeon

Ground Cuckoo-shrike …

Ground CS

During the afternoon we came across a tree that looked like an apartment block for Greater Glider, lots of hollows with signs of wear and tear at the openings and numerous scratch marks on the trunk. So we staked it out at dusk and waited and waited and … nothing came out.

So we cruised around slowly with the spotlight until we found a Spectacled Hare Wallaby a new and exciting addition to my mammal list. As well we met a few pairs of Rufous Bettong. One was happy to pose for a photo but didn’t give me time to arrange studio lighting …

Rufous Bettong

Mount Lewis …

Jewel of the wet tropics, every Australian bird watcher makes a pilgrimage here.

Mt Lewis

Cooktown was our furthest north, we took the easy way from there via Lakeland. Two nights spent at Wetherby Station, a splendid place to camp, gave us a full day up the mountain.

To get there head north from Julatten on the Mossman-Mount Molly Road, turn left at the Highlander Tavern and follow the aptly named Mount Lewis Road as far as you want to go. The road is narrow and steep but in dry conditions it can be handled by 2WD vehicles, after rain the verges become very slippery and it becomes fairly easy to get stuck.

Most visitors head for a clearing which is the famous site for the Blue-faced Parrot-finch. It is also a good spot for Mountain Thornbill. There is some parking here and a foot path that leads up hill away from the clearing into forest that is home to such mythical and highly desirable creatures as Tooth-billed Bowerbird, Spotted Catbird …

Spotted Catbird

Chowchilla, Bower’s Shrike-thrush, Atherton Scrubwren, Grey-headed Robin, Golden Bowerbird and Fernwren …

Fernwren

This little beauty was calling loudly right at my feet.

You can follow the track up and around to the left to a dam where you might add a cormorant or heron to your rainforest list. There was once a much visited Golden Bowerbird bower here but it is no longer tended.

Back at the car you can continue on the road for quite a ways until the road ends at a beaten up corrugated iron shelter. An old logging track heads off slightly to the right at the end of the road. This can be followed on foot although it becomes a little more overgrown with each passing year. And of course the birding is good along the Mount Lewis road itself. Beware of the stinging trees, remember, heart-shaped leaves with little hairs, often insect-eaten, contact equals months of pain. Progress off the roadside or the paths that I’ve mentioned is made difficult by the dense bush and the Wait-a-whiles, very spiky vines that grab your clothing or your skin and are reluctant to let you go. With typical Aussie humour they are often called lawyer vines.

As you wander about look out for Boyd’s Forest Dragon. This is a lizard that is often found quite stationary, a few metres up a tree trunk. It has a body up to about six inches in length (150 mm) plus a tail that is about twice that.

Mt Lewis is also home to some mammals that have a very limited distribution such as the Lemuroid Possum and the Daintree River Ringtail Possum, so we awaited nightfall at the end of the road and then slowly spotlighted down the hill. Our reward was a splendid view of a Daintree River Ringtail.

Around and about …

We spent a few days in the Cooktown region. Overall it was a very productive time from a wildlife perspective. The sighting of Bennett’s Tree Kangaroo was the crowning moment. If you are considering a visit, some of the places to include are the McIvor River, Mt Webb National Park, Keatings Lagoon, Black Mountain and Little Annan Gorge.

The McIvor River can be reached at a couple of spots, the easier place is via a bitumen road. On the way from Cooktown to Hopevale turn left 10 km prior to Hopevale in the direction of Laura. There is a second crossing not far downstream from there  that can be reached via a dirt track from Hopevale airstrip or from the crossing on the made road via a commercial plantation a little further in the direction of Mt Webb. Good birding in pockets of riverine rainforest can be had at both.

Flowering tree

There are no real facilities at Mt Webb but you can get off the main road and poke around. We saw White-eared and Black-winged Monarch here, the latter is a summer migrant to Cape York and this is just about its southerly limit. I photographed this Little Shrike-thrush here …

Little Shrike-thrush

Also had good views of an Amethystine Python which I was about to photograph when the Black-winged Monarch flew by. I chased it and ended up without good photos of either. A snake in the hand or a bird in the bush?

A little further north on the east side of the road you can explore a heathy area that looks productive.

There are foot paths and a hide at Keating’s lagoon. It was good for water birds and is surrounded by some dry forest that yielded Silver-crowned Friarbird and other passerines. Magpie Geese …

Magpie Goose

Our main target at Black Mountain and Little Annan Gorge was Godman’s Rock Wallaby but in that we were unsuccessful.