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The history of ornithology in the South-Eastern Gulf of Carpentaria including “Gulliver’s Travels and Travails”

Rob Reed | Guest Contributor



There is no review of the history of ornithology in the south-eastern Gulf of Carpentaria (hereafter the SE Gulf) in north-west Queensland, which includes the small towns of Karumba, Normanton and Burketown, and it remains poorly surveyed and documented.


In comparison, the “Southern Gulf of Carpentaria” region of the Northern Territory, from Nhulunbuy to the border with Queensland, has been extensively researched in the last hundred years since the time of McLennan’s 1915 survey, including papers and books on range extensions, detailed distribution maps, directions to find specific species, and even dedicated isolated remote island guides.


Also contrast this with Cape York (that mainland area north of the Jardine River), which was heavily explored and documented from 1848. In the first 20 years nine new species were named to science by John Gould. Collectors and researchers continued taking advantage of the port at Somerset up until the 1920s, thence superseded by the availability of an airstrip (1940s), and road travel which drew Officer, Kikkawa, Uhlenhut, Beruldsen and Neilsen to the area until modern times.


Few are aware that several novel species procured from the SE Gulf were named to science: Chestnut Rail (named to Gould) in 1844; Golden-shouldered Parrot in 1858 (Gould); Yellow Chat (Castelnau and Ramsay) in 1877; and Mangrove Fantail (De Vis – collected 1884, finally named as a distinct species in 1981). How each of these were collected and named is a fascinating part of the local ornithological history of Far North Queensland.


1841 The HMS Beagle: Chestnut Rail, a new species for Gould


The type specimen of the Chestnut Rail (Figure 1) sent to John Gould was taken from the mouth of the Flinders River in the SE Gulf, in 1841, by Rear-Admiral Stokes of the HMS Beagle on her six-year tour of discovery and collection, including a circumnavigation of Australasian waters (1837–1843).


Stokes was of some interest already, having been the room-mate of Charles Darwin during the previous and far more famous Beagle voyage (1831–1836), which included the ground-breaking discovery of the variation among Galapagos finches leading to Darwin’s theory of natural selection.


Stokes named the Flinders and Albert Rivers, and the area between them the “Plains of Promise” (see Figure 2), and, possibly prone to wild pontificating, noted “…[whose] pleasing appearance prompted…to foretell the spread of 'many Christian hamlets' throughout the area.” Stokes had not allowed for the remoteness nor the harsh fluctuations in northern tropical seasons, and in 2024 (183 years later) the area is undeveloped other than the necessary water points and fences of cattle stations.


Further sightings of this species in the SE Gulf, after the taking of the type specimen, have been few – a skin and eggs were collected from Burketown in 1897. There is a reference to a specimen in a 1917 museum dataset as being “near Normanton” but no further detail.


There had been no further records of Chestnut Rail in the SE Gulf until teams undertook surveys on Mornington Island this century between 2009 and 2011. The dearth of reports is possibly explained by a combination of the secretive nature of the bird, and the remote locations of its existence. There is but a single public road to the shoreline in the SE Gulf area which ends at Karumba, and the small area of mangroves accessible to birders is dominated largely by busy fishing-related human activity and their habitations.

Figure 1: Chestnut Rail. (Gould, J. 1869. The Birds of Australia: Supplement. London: Gould).


1856 Elsey overland collecting for Gould: Golden-shouldered Parrot, a new species


This beautiful parrot was collected by Joseph Ravenscroft Elsey, a surgeon and naturalist, on Gregory’s expedition from the Northern Territory’s Port Essington to Brisbane, Queensland over six months in 1856. This was the first overland faunal collection trip which traversed the Gulf of Carpentaria region. The co-ordinates provided by Gould put the location at about 61 km south-east of Normanton (see Figure 2). Modern works have indicated a variety of possible locations for these specimens but all in the SE Gulf area. What is more certain is that this is the only verifiable record of this species from the SE Gulf, the range of which soon contracted north-east to Cape York Peninsula due to pastoral expansion in the late 1800s.


Elsey collected 249 skins on this expedition and his zeal is exemplified when procuring the Golden-shouldered Parrot which he had to carry inside his shirt for 12 hours before an opportunity to skin them arose. "It settled in a tree close to me while two of our party were out after horses, and I watched it for an hour, with finger on trigger until their return, expecting it to fly any moment. [It was a recognised signal that a shot fired at camp recalled members of the party]. At last, I got three specimens, popped them into my coat and set off, and it was 12 hours after, 7 pm, before I had time by firelight to skin them".


When back in London in 1857, Elsey became very unwell and organised a posting to the West Indies to continue his work, but also to take advantage of the climate to improve his health. He died in St Kitts that year aged 23.

Figure 2: A section of the map of Gregory’s expedition showing passage through the south-eastern Gulf of Carpentaria, north Queensland, in 1856. (Gregory, A.C. and Gregory, F.T., 1884. Journals of Australian Explorations). Source: Project Gutenberg. Note the reference to the “Plains of Promise”.

Figure 3: Golden-shouldered Parrots collected by Elsey. (Gould, J. 1869. The Birds of Australia: Supplement. London: Gould). Source: Australian Museum.


1877 Gulliver collecting for Castelnau and Ramsay: Yellow Chat, a new species


This rare species was discovered by Thomas Gulliver, the Telegraph Station-master at Normanton 1875-1876, and the Norman River remains the type locality. It was described and named to Count F. de Castelnau and Dr E. P. Ramsay in 1877. Count de Castelnau was a naturalist and then Consul-general for France in Melbourne.


Figure 4: Yellow Chats (left) with Orange Chats (right). From Mathews, G.M. 1910–27. The Birds of Australia. Vol. IX Plate 440 (Illustration). Source: Biodiversity Heritage Library.


Interestingly, in 1930 a male skin was noted in the National Museum labelled as coming from the Rockhampton (Queensland) district in 1859. How this novelty, pre-dating the type specimen by 18 years, was overlooked at the time is a source of great mystery. This Capricorn subspecies at least bears the name of the collector as recognition (ssp. mcgregori) but the Norman River specimen (ssp. crocea) remains the holotype.


There is more to learn about the fascinating life of Thomas Gulliver below.


1884 Broadbent collecting for De Vis at Karumba: Mangrove Fantail, a new species (and two new subspecies)


A Mangrove Fantail was taken in 1884 by Kendall Broadbent, a professional collector, at the mouth of the Norman River and was described by De Vis in 1884. The path to full speciation was somewhat faltering however and was not attained immediately. Mathews described it carefully in 1910 and he appears to have produced the first depiction of it.


In the 1913 Royal Australian Ornithological Union (RAOU) Checklist, it is listed as a full species along with 10 other Rhipidura (Fantail) species; many of which were destined to become subspecies. By the time Mathews published his final chapters of The Birds of Australia between 1925 and 1927, he had reclassified this species as a subspecies of Grey Fantail. There is no depiction in his 12-volume tome. It remained so until 1981 when it was finally declared a species.


Holotype Subspecies


There are many subspecies (ssp) with their type specimens described from the area. These include: White-breasted Whistler (ssp fretorum); Jacky Winter (ssp. pallida); Rufous Shrike-thrush (ssp normani); Black-faced Woodswallow (ssp normani); Zitting Cisticola (ssp normani); Sarus Crane (ssp gillae); Little Corella (ssp normantoni); Rufous Whistler (ssp pallida); and Black-throated Finch subspecies (ssp atropygialis).


Figure. 5: Mangrove Fantail as depicted by Mathews. (Mathews, G. M. 1910 Note on Rhipidura phasiana, De Vis. Emu. 10(1): 1–3). Source: Royal Australian Ornithologists Union 1910.


1876 Gulliver collecting for Diggles: Black-throated Finch, a new subspecies


In his time, Sylvester Diggles, an ornithologist based in Brisbane, named 15 new species from various parts of Australia, all of which turned out not to be new species at all - after the supposed “type specimen” skins had been sent to John Gould in London for his opinion. Diggles’ one surviving contribution to new bird discovery is his Black-throated Finch subspecies, Poephila cincta atropygialis.


At the same time, Gulliver also sent a Black-throated Finch to Castelnau and Ramsay who also described it as a novel species in a formal scientific publication. Diggles however, only briefly described it in a newspaper article, and based his claim to naming it based on this alone beating them to the punch. A massive ornithological stoush ensued:

“We have adopted here the name proposed by Mr. Diggles of Queensland, for this new species, but more out of compliment to that gentleman, than in accordance with the strict rules of nomenclature, as it will be evident to all ornithologists that the merely proposing a name and pointing out a difference in a newspaper can scarcely be looked upon as describing the species. We trust our friend will take this hint in the kindly spirit it is meant; and when he again favours us with the announcement of any new species, we hope they will be fully described.”

Photo 1: Black-throated Finch feeding in Normanton, February 2024. Image by Rob Reed.


Thomas Gulliver (1848–1931): Travels and travails


Gulliver came to Australia from the UK at age eight years with his parents and siblings. As a lad of 15, he started working at the Melbourne Botanical Gardens in Victoria, Australia, where he learned much about botany, even collecting specimens from Melbourne’s bush, with his brother Benjamin. As he could not secure ongoing suitable botanical work, in 1873 he moved north to work as a telegraph line repairer after the telegraph line from Cardwell to Normanton and Kimberley (later named Karumba) in Queensland was completed in 1872.


Whilst posted at Nebo in February 1873, there were “cyclonic rains” and the line was breached. Linesmen were expected to head out in all types of weather to repair the line within 20 minutes of notification. Gulliver attempted to ford a swollen creek but lost his pack horses and supplies. He regrouped, stripped off, and had his clothes and tobacco pouch only on his horse bareback to improve buoyancy, but they were separated mid-stream when struck by a log. He got across and was re-united with his horse after clinging to a small tree on the bank for most of the day. The next creek was swollen, and the former was higher still.


He was trapped on this island between raging creeks for three weeks “clothed only in blisters” and survived on wild carrots and freshwater mussels. A search party found his pack horse and ruined supplies so they returned and reported him lost by drowning, which was published in the press. Gulliver had the unique experience later of reading the details of his own death.


As a result of his travails, he was rewarded and ended up as the Telegraph Station-master at Normanton and “Norman Mouth” (Karumba) stations during 1875 and 1876.


Despite working full time, he managed to collect all manner of natural specimens and send them to museums and experts. His focus was on botanical specimens (which was his first love), and 82 separate items sent by Gulliver during this time still exist in the National Herbarium of Victoria today. However, he had a profound interest in all things natural and algae, fish, and birds, for example, were some of his expanded areas of interest. Some of these proved to be novelties, an example being Kurtus gulliveri (the Nurseryfish) described by Castelnau in 1878 and named to Gulliver.


In total, over a 38 year lifetime career at various locations of the Post and Telegraph Department (culminating in a director position in Brisbane), Gulliver provided almost 1,500 botanical specimens alone: all labelled and located to the telegraph station of his posting at the time.


When compared with the other gentlemen in this article who were explorers and collectors by trade, Gulliver undertook his passion as a true “side-hustle,” probably unpaid, and still made an enormous contribution to science. We also must remember that avian specimens were not necessarily his highest priority although he in fact sent many hundreds of skins to experts in various locations whilst in the SE Gulf alone.

Photos 2. 2 (a) White-bellied Sea-eagle atop an extant telegraph pole where the line traverses Mutton Hole Wetlands Conservation Park en route to Karumba; and

2 (b) Telegraph line insulator still present on a pole – the only one I could find in the district. Images by Rob Reed.


The south-eastern Gulf of Carpentaria has a rich ornithological history which appears to be largely unknown, but remains front of mind as I move about the various habitats holding the unique avian life on offer in the area.


References and further reading suggestions available on request.



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