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Hasties Swamp – a jewel of the Tablelands

Peter Valentine | Conservation Officer

In the beginning...

Hasties Swamp was also known as Nyleta Wetlands, named after the railway siding at that location (Nyleta).

Google Earth image of Hasties Swamp National Park – north to the top.

Traditional Owners used the area as a seasonal camp, managed by them to enable sustainable harvesting of its resources. It is certainly unclear which tribe had original occupancy of the site as there are several potential overlapping clans. The claim by the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS) that it was Yidinji seems unlikely, as that group is principally Cairns based. Ngadjinji are perhaps more likely, although it would be on the south-western edge of their territory. Jirrbal people are possible users also as they are known to have occupied the Atherton region. There is also the prospect that a completely missing group, possibly named Ngikoongoi, may have been there before total dispersion by the frontier wars.

The situation is undoubtedly more complex than simplistic stories told by the QPWS interpretation. One prospect is that this valuable resource was shared by many groups as part of seasonal activities. Unfortunately, like so many parts of Australia, the real situation on the Atherton Tablelands before Europeans arrived is shrouded in mystery and deliberate fiction, often hiding many massacres and extensive removal programs sanctioned by the new ruling authorities.

It is slightly ironic that there have even been disputes among the settler families as to who has legitimate naming rights. The Foley family tried to have the name changed to Foley’s Swamp on the basis of their property bounding the eastern edge of the Swamp. But the Hasties family had a long term lease over the Camping and Water Reserve so may have the greater claim, and local use of that name probably won out. Even the name Nyleta is suspect as it was initiated by Queensland Rail, a body often guilty of using names for appeal, not local authenticity.

But, to close this section, as Shakespeare noted – “What’s in a name… a rose by any other name would smell as sweet...”, and so too would Hasties.

Environmental context

It is also a place where geological differences – older granites to the west and south with younger basalt soils to the east – meet in a depression. The vegetation reflects this also, with the country west of Hasties Swamp being open woodland dominated by swamp box and bloodwood, and with a line of ti-trees bordering the water. On the eastern side the vegetation was once rainforest with blue gums up to the water’s edge, most of it more recently logged for timber and cleared for agriculture.

Hasties Swamp early morning with waterbirds and waders using the mix of muddy shoreline and open water: a very productive time of year. Photo by Peter Valentine.

This geological meeting-ground houses a depression in which sediment and decaying vegetation form a relatively impervious and sponge-like layer that holds water for most of the year. The Swamp very rarely dries out completely. This reliable water supply is the basis of wildlife diversity and use, much to the delight of birders. In addition, the boundary conditions between rainforest and dry woodlands produce a much greater diversity of bush birds than either habitat would alone. These fundamental conditions help explain why so many bird species (>200) have been recorded for the National Park and why birders love to visit often.

Early use

Before it became a National Park, the Hasties Swamp area was used as a camping and watering place for bullock teams, three timber mills for local cutters, and market gardens for the growing population (a Chinese immigrant initiative), as well as temporary leases for grazing cattle. Local land-owners attempted to purchase the Swamp area, but it was gazetted as a National Park (57 ha) in the 1980s. The extensive water body and surrounding forest environment were included in the National Park.

Soon after the first big rain of the wet season, Hasties Swamp refills and often the water level expands almost to the road, and frequently under and behind the Bird Hide. After the wet there is usually a slow process of reduction in the area of water and its depth. As the water’s edge retreats it is sometimes colonised by weedy plant species, while on other occasions the retreating margin leaves behind muddy surfaces much loved by waders. This succession process continues some years until the water has almost all gone, with consequences for the bird population and diversity. But as the rains return at the end of the year the cycle starts again.

Sarus Cranes at Hasties Swamp. Brolgas and Sarus Cranes do roost at Hasties when they are feeding nearby. They tend to depart for their feeding grounds at first light. Photo by Peter Valentine.

The Birders need facilities

A key asset for visitors is the Bird Hide: a two-storey pole timber construction with excellent open viewing spaces that can accommodate 15–20 birders at a time. The actual maximum capacity is quite a lot more than that, as might be seen during the annual Crane Counts. But how did this magnificent Hide come about?

BirdLife Northern Queensland (BLNQ), and its predecessor Birds Australia North Queensland (BANQ), were very much involved in the creation of the Hide. Founding President Dr Graham Harrington had envisaged a bird hide, but the idea had limited support from QPWS at the time (reasons are not known).

Meanwhile, the BANQ group had put together a bird list for Hasties Swamp and decided to hold an official launch of the Checklist at Hasties Swamp itself. Birders usually gathered on Koci Road at a small patch of grass as the primary viewing area, near where the current Hide and car park are located. The official launch of the Hasties Swamp Checklist was held there in 1998.

The launch of BANQ group’s Hasties Swamp Checklist 1998: Jon and Peta Nott and family on the proposed hide site – the start of the process to create the Hide. Photo provided by Jon Nott.

The then northern Manager for Queensland National Parks, Lindsay Delzoppo, came up from Cairns for the event, and the local Birds Australia Convenor, Jon Nott, took advantage of his presence to ask for advice on where the bird hide should best be located. With a few well-judged comments from Jon Nott and the on-site conversation, Lindsay Delzoppo committed to the Hide. And even funds ($27,000) were promised.

Striking while the iron was hot, Jon was able to quickly prepare plans for the hide and get them engineered by a colleague, and formally approved by Council. The promised funds went into the Atherton branch of QPWS where they eventually disappeared, but not on the Hasties Swamp Bird Hide.

The project stagnated for a bit, but the preparation work became extremely valuable when suddenly the local Shire Council was desperate for projects to submit for funding to the Queensland Heritage Trails Fund. Town Planner Greg Overton asked for ideas and the Bird Hide was considered perfect for the purpose: if additional elements including interpretation facilities, car park, boardwalk and toilets were added (to increase the ask). Consultation with a traditional owner (Nola Joseph) revealed that the idea of a walkway down to the south and across to the Herberton Road might be sensitive (possibly because of traditional burial elements), and so the project was consolidated on the other components.

Hasties Swamp Bird Hide when first built in 2001. Photo provided by Jon Nott.

Creation of the Bird Hide project was brought about largely with the leadership and creative force of Jon Nott, who was at that time the Convenor of the BANQ group. Funds were derived from Birds Australia, the Queensland Government, and the National Government. The initiative was part of the Queensland Heritage Trails Network, and once completed, the Bird Hide became the property of Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS). Construction was accomplished by Jon Nott and his team (following official tender), and is a credit to the Birds Australia North Queensland group and the individuals involved. It has withstood the test of time since construction in 2001 and remains an exceptional resource.

The Hasties Swamp Bird Hide today (Feb 6, 2024). Photo by Peter Valentine.

What birds have been seen?

In April 2018, BLNQ introduced a monthly bird survey and count for Hasties Swamp. For ease of recollection, it was decided that the survey would be on the first Friday of each month commencing at 7:00 am, and running for two hours. It was conceived primarily as a social event to enable members to enjoy a solid session of birding in different habitats, and over the course of the year, experience the changing conditions of the Swamp and presence of various species.

The reliable Dusky Moorhen, frequently seen in front of the Hide. Photo by Peter Valentine.

It has now been running for almost six years and continues to attract a regular following with additional new birders joining in from time to time. Typically around 10–12 people participate, but on occasions the numbers have dropped to a handful, and on others have reached about 15.

Hasties Swamp Survey Team, 2023. Some of the regulars in the Hide. Photo by Peter Valentine.

The general pattern is to spend the first period in the Hide counting all the water birds, typically using a scope to check birds on the far side, and towards the north and south of the Hide. Sometimes this might involve estimating huge flocks of Magpie Goose and Plumed Whistling-Duck numbering several thousands.

Hasties Swamp with well-filled conditions and thousands of waterbirds late in the year. Photo by Peter Valentine.

Many exciting species have turned up, including Freckled Duck, Pink-eared Duck and even Chestnut Teal.

Some of the less common species: Freckled Duck and Pink-eared Duck surrounded by the abundant Plumed Whistling-Duck. Photo by Peter Valentine.

Occasionally the exposed lake edges attract many waders of great interest including, quite regularly, Red-kneed Dotterel and Latham’s Snipe.

Latham’s Snipe arrive as early migrants and if conditions are good can be readily seen at Hasties. Photo by Peter Valentine.

After the Hide observations the birders move out to the road and slowly survey the bush birds, searching around the Hide itself, then walking south and often finding many species of great interest in the roadside vegetation. Luckily the very limited vehicle use on Koci Road makes this activity comfortable and safe.

Some survey birders with Ron Schweitzer (centre in shorts).
Black-faced Monarch next to the Hide boardwalk, 2024. Photo by Peter Valentine.

Generally the survey comes to an end around 9:00 am with the number of species recorded varying quite a lot from season to season depending on the Swamp conditions.

View from the Hide with relatively low water conditions, late in the year. Lots of waders present. Photo by Peter Valentine.

A low count, usually in the early wet season after big rains, is around 30 species and only a few individuals (100–200). A big count is more like 70 species, and that is usually in the dry season with large numbers of waterbirds (many thousands), as well as many bush birds passing through or breeding. Consistently high numbers of species occur from August to December with numbers increasing again after about March. The wettest months of January and February often have lower species diversity and low individual counts.

Hasties Swamp almost completely dry with few birds left – mainly waders. Photo by Peter Valentine.

Reliability issues

Just how many bird species might be recorded at Hasties Swamp over the course of a year? This is a somewhat moot point. If you accept eBird, then it might seem that there have been around 270 species recorded there. If you try Birdata the figure is similar: around 260 species. Many of these species in each dataset have been recorded once only, and on the surface are plainly wrong: for example Golden Bowerbird, Mountain Thornbill, Yellow-throated Scrubwren, Tooth-billed Bowerbird.

It may not be that the birder misidentified the species. In my fairly exhaustive analysis of eBird records for Hasties Swamp, I found many examples where a birder may have started birding at Hasties Swamp; then gone on to other sites, but continued to record the species as being at Hasties rather than starting a new list for each site they visited. Others may well have ended a long day’s travel at Hasties, and submitted their observations as though all were seen at Hasties. In some instances the birders mention this, and therefore confirm the likelihood that the incongruous species were actually seen elsewhere. Such inclusions on the eBird lists inflate the number of species for Hasties Swamp and eventually will need removing.

Then there are other examples where the birder has very likely misidentified the species. In my examination of the records there seems to be plenty of these also, often identified from the fact that the species has only been recorded once! There are quite a few species on eBird in this category. Of course there may well be a genuine rarity only ever seen once, that complicates the situation for data managers. But in these days of instantaneous communication I expect that will be rare in the future.

QPWS gives a figure of 220 species for Hasties Swamp: a much more realistic number in my view. In my first assessment of the eBird sightings, I concluded there were about 60 species recorded at Hasties Swamp that are very dodgy. I am slowly working through the records to reach a better-defined conclusion, and I expect I might end up with close to 200 as possible species for birders to encounter: which is a splendid figure for this site!

It is interesting that if you look on eBird at those birders with the greatest number of species seen at Hasties over their lifetime birding there, a figure of maybe 170–180 seems the highest outcome: usually from a great many checklists. In my case since 2013, I have submitted 168 checklists for Hasties Swamp National Park and recorded 181 species on those checklists. And how about that official BANQ checklist launched in 1998? That can still be downloaded from our website, Bird Checklist No 10, Hasties Swamp. It has 231 species listed, much the same as the QPWS number.

Excellent sightings

What then are some of the additional outstanding records that birders have encountered at Hasties Swamp? Some are more famous than others. One such species is the Eastern Shrike-tit. A much sought-after bird, it has turned up at Hasties Swamp several times, and even nested in the tall eucalypt overlooking the car park. Many people have been lucky enough to see this species on its occasional visits, and it has appeared in many months and on many occasions.

One of the specials: a female Eastern Shrike-tit with grass for nest building, near the Hide car park. Photo by Peter Valentine.

Another gem to visit Hasties is the Little Kingfisher. They seem to come in the wet season and at time of writing, one is fishing in the roadside ponds enabling some excellent views.

Little Kingfisher, photo taken from the Hide, by Peter Valentine.

On one occasion a pair of Australian Painted Snipe turned up and gave terrific views to the lucky observer. It is worth noting that there are many records of different waders present, especially when there is a wide mudflat exposed.

Recently a Spotless Crake has been entertaining regulars, and other rail species are also seen occasionally, including breeding pairs of Pale-vented Bush-hen with tiny chicks.

Among the raptors in addition to the regular White-breasted Sea Eagle, there are many records of Square-tailed Kite, Little Eagle and Pacific Baza. There have been a couple of reliable records of Varied Sitella – something to keep an eye out for.

Although the focus for birders is the Swamp, the bush bird habitat is varied and sufficient to support many interesting records. Recent records include Satin Flycatcher (passing through), Restless Flycatcher, Rufous Fantail, Yellow-breasted Boatbill (regular), Grey Whistler and Bower’s Shrike-thrush. This is the kind of habitat in which birders might always expect the unexpected!

Join in the fun

Since the commencement of the Hasties Swamp surveys in 2018 there have been two coordinators, first myself, and then Ron Schweitzer who took over three years ago.

In 2024 new BLNQ Members Barry and Lesley Deacon (formerly of Mackay) are now running the survey. It’s always an enjoyable morning and it’s a great idea to put the first Friday of the month in your diary as Hasties Friday (or as one member suggested, wearing a BCF shirt: Bird Count Friday). Of course we do not want too many participants or there may not be enough of Jen Browne’s delicious amaretto biscuits to go around – our end of count reward!

And it is not just the first Friday of the month! A visit to Hasties on any occasion might involve encounters with some of our regular BLNQ birders including Al Sweet (who runs the Atherton Tablelands Bird Photography Group); Noel Kremmer who comes almost every day; Rebel Warren (chasing photos); Leonard Arnold (with a very large camera lens); Louise Baume (who comes across from Mareeba); Mark and Angela McCaffrey (who have seen so many of the species); and yours truly, who cannot bear the idea of a week without Hasties. Why not join in and be the one to find the next rare species.

Plumed Whistling-Duck leucistic bird, one of three that appeared in 2023, this one being the last survivor. What next will we see? Photo by Peter Valentine.


Special thanks to Jon Nott for assistance with some historical material about the Hide especially; and thanks also to Rene Van Raders and the Eacham Historical Society for help with early maps, history and photographs. Any errors are my own.


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