BUSH HERITAGE RESERVES IN THE WILD ARID NORTH OF THE SIMPSON DESERT


By Kath Shurcliff, Dave Houghton, and Pippy Cannon


BirdLife Northern Queensland (BNQ) has entered a partnership with Bush Heritage Australia (BHA) to assist them with their vertebrate fauna monitoring, by undertaking bird surveys at several of their Queensland reserves. This partnership arose from the work that Graham Harrington did to initiate bird surveys at Yourka Reserve numerous years ago. So in September and October this year, a willing group of three of us (Pippy, Dave and Kath) took off to meet up in Boulia to make the trek to Craven’s Peak (now known as Pilungah in recognition of the traditional owners, the Wangkamadla, who have just received title to their ancestral lands).



Locations of Ethabuka (left) and Cravens Peak (Pilungah) (right)


We met up with several other volunteers who ranged from helping out with general maintenance, feral animal control, reptile and mammal surveys, as well as plant surveys. We also met the new resident reserve managers and relatively new resident ecologist and highly experienced field officer. After thorough safety and work place inductions and a welcome bbq dinner, we set off over the sand dunes to our first camp site.



Our first campsite

Pilungah and the nearby Ethabuka Reserves are on the northern edge of the Simpson Desert. They both have an interesting mix of habitats which are fairly unique within Queensland. They have coolibah country along the main creeks and rivers, with spinifex-clad red sand dunes, some of which in the southern part of Ethabuka also have cane grass ridges. Eyrean Grasswren has been recorded there. In between the sand dunes and beyond to the north are extensive gidgee (Acacia georginae) woodlands. There is a smattering of low rocky ridges with acacia shrubs in the northern area. The wetlands are small and ephemeral surrounded by mallee-form eucalypts (E. pacyphylla).



Dunes at sunset in Bush Heritage Australia's Ethabuka Nature Reserve

The Mulligan River runs through the eastern part of Ethabuka, with chenopod shrublands on the floodplains.


We spent two weeks on Pilungah, undertaking surveys at 20 sites, spread out across four different habitats – rocky ridges, gidgee woodland, sandy spinifex and ephemeral wetland/woodland (which were completely dry while we were there). So our task seemed simple enough: drive around to the 20 sites, making sure we visited each one six times and count every single bird we could see and hear in an area 200m by 100m, over a period of 10 minutes.

The days were long and increasingly became hotter, but after spectacular sunsets, the nights were often quite cold. We had assumed those cold nights of the deserts would be gone by the end of August. But we were so wrong and had to get a reinforcement of blankets sent in from the Reserve’s HQ! Because we only had one team, we seemed to spend more time driving between sites than we spent counting birds.





But we did manage to get all our surveys completed. There were not many species of birds, a total of 56. There were some honeyeaters – mostly Singing, with Yellow-throated Miner and Black-chinned wherever the few trees were flowering, as well as a smattering of Grey-headed among the mallees. Black-faced Woodswallows were widespread but in small numbers, as well as a few occurrences of Masked Woodswallow flocks. There were few raptors, only some Brown Falcons, Kestrels, and a pair of nesting Hobby. Zebras were the only finches and there were only small numbers of Budgerigars.


There was no surface water present while we were there as all the previous bores have been closed down. However we were surprised at the high numbers of Banded Whitefaces, and Chiming Wedgebills throughout the area. In fact, we all started to tire of hearing the constant “did you get drunk, did you get drunk?”, especially as we repeatedly replied “no, we did not”, “no, we did not”!!This population is the most easterly for the species, and is not too distant from the northerly extent of its close relative Chirruping Wedgebill. Tracks and remains of camels were widespread and Bush Heritage Australia still maintains an active program to control their numbers.


After two weeks we moved further south to Ethabuka Reserve, taking the internal “shot track” which was essentially a straight line from Ocean Bore at Pilungah to the homestead at Ethabuka, missing out most of the sand dunes. However, we did have a few to cross from the bore.


At Ethabuka we surveyed not only the familiar gidgee woodlands, and spinifex on sand dunes, but also gibber, riparian habitat along the Mulligan River, and the chenopod shrublands.


The Mulligan contained numerous waterholes so we had a variety of water-based birds, that had been missing from Pilungah. The plan was to spend a full two weeks on Ethabuka, but a looming rain front cut this time short, and we had to beat a retreat into Bedourie while we still could. We only managed to complete 14 of the 25 sites, which included mostly the chenopod, riverine and a few dune and gidgee sites. But we still managed 85 species, illustrating the importance of surface water to species diversity – waterfowl, pigeons and swallow/martins in particular.


We picked up several additional honeyeaters, including Black who were feeding in flowering eremophilas, which was a lifer for Pippy – yea! Horsfield’s Bushlarks, and Purple-backed (mostly in small Acacia shrubs) and White-winged Fairy-wrens (in the spinfex) were abundant. Cinnamon Quailthrushes and Inland Dotterels (both with dependent young) roamed the gidgee and gibber sites. The raptors increased in numbers and diversity, due to a super-abundant food source – long-haired rats (Rattus villisissimus). Large numbers were caught in the mammal surveyors’ pitfalls and Elliott traps. The rats were being feasted upon by the raptors – Brown Falcon, Spotted Harrier, Whistling Kite, Black Kite, as well as Little Crow and Australian Raven, which even figured out how to get the rats out of the Elliotts by pulling the side pin out! But alas there was no sign of Letter-winged Kites!


Our data are now being used by the ecologist to assess how comprehensive are their current site lay-outs and methods – that is, how well can these determine and monitor the complete picture of species diversity, and measure the impacts of management actions across the two Reserves. We in BirdLife NQ are proud to be able to assist them in their enduring efforts to identify and protect our unique wildlife, and particularly our birdlife. We look forward to going back there in future years and to complete and expand their work in two unique Queensland reserves.



Read more about Bush Hertiage's Pilungah Reserve here.



Read more about Bush Hertiage's Ethabuka Reserve here.