Scott Ritchie | Guest Contributor
The crisp, clear mornings in north Queensland can mean only one thing. It’s winter and it’s time to go outback birding!
I’ve just returned from a wonderful trip to the Hughenden and Winton Dinosaur Trail in outback Queensland. The dry climate creates a landscape dominated by short grasses and scattered trees, with amazing landscapes with red-rock jump-ups and gorges. Unlike the claustrophobic rainforest trees, you could actually see birds from some distance away. But they could see you too, and often took flight. So how best to approach outback birds in order to get the truly magical photograph?
First stop: Porcupine Gorge
Porcupine Gorge campsite offers the typical flat, dry country, scattered eucalypts, and melaleucas. A range of outback birds provided a dawn chorus. For me, the fun bird was the Weebill. The smallest bird in Australia, the Weebill has one of the largest hearts (in spirit that is). After initially getting my ear in, I could rapidly pinpoint this dynamo as it sang WEE BILL, WEE BILL, WEE BILL at the top of its syrinx.
Then a fellow camper told me that she just seen a Red-capped Robin down in the Gorge. Wow, Red-capped Robins: I gotta go. After carefully navigating the steep decline into Porcupine Gorge, I wandered through the sparse vegetation along the riverside. I could hear small birds singing in the distance. After 15 minutes I ran into a small robin I had not seen before that was very accommodating. I got some decent shots, particularly a sequence when a wasp flew right in front of the robin, daring her to have a go at it. The robin, not being anyone’s fool, simply eyed the wasp off (Photo 1). While lacking the showy red of the male, the female Red-capped Robin has a subtle flush of red that blends in beautifully with the Ozzie bush.
Use your vehicle as a hide
Not long ago I listened to an interview with Jan Lile on the engaging podcast, “Birding Today”, by Thomas Doerig. Jan talked about how she used to bird in central and western Queensland using her vehicle as a hide: just driving slowly along, looking for a bird and then taking photos along the roadside. One nice thing about the outback is that most of the secondary roads are flat and have almost no traffic (but mind the road-trains!). So it's easy to cruise along quite slowly and look for birds without having to turn around. Here’s how I used the method to get good shots of finches.
Finches were often seen in the grassy roadside around the Hughenden recreational lake. Both Zebra and Plum-headed Finches fed in the grass and perched on adjacent fencing. I had captured good pictures of Zebra Finches in the morning, so I really wanted a Plum-headed Finch. I spotted finches feeding in the grass ahead of me in the late afternoon sun, so I slowly pulled off the road and scanned the grass with my binoculars: small birds, horizontal banding on the breast: Plum-headed finches! I crept down the road and pulled off onto the shoulder only 5 metres away. Then I waited, window down, lens drawn. It was a bit frustrating as the finches fed and flitted through the thick grass, driving my autofocus (AF) nuts. But with patience, I’d see a bird would eventually pop out in the open. I used manual focus to get close to focus, then hit the AF button, and the shutter. Then a group of them flew back to the fence for a bit of a chat, allowing me a few photos with a lovely blurred, yellowed grass background that the ‘golden hour’ light creates (Photo 2).
Myth busted at Winton
Sean Dooley, in his much-heralded book “The Big Twitch” that describes his big year, declared that the Grey Falcon must be a myth. After all, he couldn’t find it. I was lucky. I was given good Intel by my birding friends to look for this mythical falcon on the telecom tower at the turn off to the Dinosaur Stampede near Winton. So look I did. Initially I didn’t see anything. Outback telecom towers are huge, and reach very high. I moved around to the north side of the tower and noticed a flying bird coming in to land at great height. Bins up and there they were! Two roosting Grey Falcons on the third crossbeam up. I had my 2X Teleconverter on my Canon 100 500 zoom and even then they were small in the frame (Photo 3). But undoubtedly it was the Grey Falcon. I was stoked. No time to delay, off to see the dinosaur stampede, although I did see a Hooded Robin near the display building.
My intel also informed me that the spinifex near the falcon tower held the rare Opalton Grasswren and the beautiful Rufous-crowned Emu-wren. On the way back to Winton after the dinosaurs, I nipped in to chance my arm. I walk a circuitous route through the spinifex, avoiding a direct hit on the spiney clumps. Nothing. Just when I was about to get into the car thinking, “At least I saw the falcons”, I heard a very high-pitched “tweet tweet”. Emu-wrens! I walked into a nearby open flat surrounded by spinifex clumps. I paused, turned my ear towards the nearest clump. “Tweet, tweet”. An emu-wren, right at my feet, buried deep inside a spinifex clump. I noticed a small circular opening at the base of the spiny bush. It was the entry tunnel used by these small, mouse-like birds to dash through the maze of spinifex. No way I’ll get a look at this bird, yet alone a picture. I then saw a blue flash to my left and, to my amazement, there was a male Rufous-crowned Emu-wren, flitting within a shrubby bush. He didn’t stay long, but I did happen to get the AF on him (using point focus) and captured a couple of miracle shots (Photo 4). What a great day, at a great spot! Many thanks to my birding friends for the intel.
It’s all about the light
One thing you immediately notice in outback Australia is the abundance of light. Wide open spaces like the Big Sky State of Montana. Easy photography compared with the dark claustrophobic rainforest of North Queensland, yes? Not so fast. To get good photographs of wildlife you need to consider this light carefully. For most of the day too much of a good thing just blows out the highlights, creates too much contrast, and the heat haze defuses any sharpness. Furthermore, not many birds are out in the midday sun. So you might as well chill out. Edit your photos. Read a good novel. Scout for sites. Have a nap. But don’t waste your time trying to shoot pictures of birds at 11 in the morning, unless it’s a good cloudy day or a Grey Falcon lands on a nearby post.
But during the golden hour it’s a whole different story. From the last hour before sunset, or first hour after sunrise, the light is soft and takes on a rich golden hue. Rich savoury colours emerge from birds. And the outback grasses glow golden: a perfect background.
One of my favourite photos from the trip is of a group of Spinifex Pigeons from Bladenburg National Park during golden hour. I had seen quite a large flock of them walking around a spinifex flat, but they are a skittish bird, and they always flew ahead of my lens. I only had an hour of sunlight left, and I thought if I drive really slowly, there’s a good chance I might see some in the flats between spinifex clumps, while cruising along slowly (20 kms an hour), looking for any sort of movement on the ground. Voila, there they were. Off to my right, in the golden hour light that bathed bird and bush in a rich yellow hue:.the grass and the tall crest of the pigeons acting as a windvane in the cold outback wind. I really like the combination of the plants, the landscape and the pigeons to create an outback birdscape photo (Photo 5).
So do enjoy some outback birding this winter. The people are friendly, and birds and mammals accommodating… especially during the last minutes of sunshine when they magically appear in the outback sunset (Photo 6).