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Mt Isa and the Outback

Author: Carl from Pahrump
Date of Trip: October 2006

Mt Isa & the Outback Alice Springs to Cairns Oct 2006 Bird Watching Trip Report For the Independent Traveler.com
In 2006 and 2007 we spent 255 Days driving around Australia. We started in Darwin, drove south to Alice Springs, backtracked to Cairns, went down the East Coast to Rockhampton, cut over to Melbourne, went across the Nullarbor Plain to Perth, drove up the West Coast to Broome, and finished by crossing the Kimberely Region on our way back to Darwin — 24,000 miles & 6 rental cars. Along the way we stayed in 56 cities and saw 693 bird species/subspecies.

This Trip Report covers the 4 days we spent bird watching while driving from Alice Springs to Cairns in Oct 2006 — Barkly Highway, Mt Isa, Charters Towers, Townsville, & Ingaham.

From To State Miles Hrs Alice Springs Threeways Rdhouse NT 331 6 Threeways Rdhouse Mt Isa Qld 396 8 Mt Isa Charters Towers Qld 481 9 Charters Towers Cairns/Redlynch Qld 306 7

The purpose of this trip was to get from Alice Springs to Cairns without flying. Bird watching was secondary, but helped to make the drive interesting.

We saw 106 bird species at 8 locations:

City State Location Lat & Long Ti Tree NT Stuart Highway 22.131S 133.416E Tennant Creek NT Mary Ann Dam 19.610S 134.210E Avon Downs NT Barkly Hwy 20.025S 137.489E Mt Isa Qld Lake Moondarra 20.582S 139.574E Julia Creek Qld Flinders Hwy 20.657S 141.742E Charters Towers Qld White Mt NP 20.764S 145.029E Townsville Qld Bruce Hwy 19.595S 146.838E Ingaham Qld Tyto Wetlands 18.658S 146.161E

If you put these coordinates into Google Earth, you can see the locations I am discussing. Typically, there will be lots of pictures as well.

The places where we saw the most bird species were:

Location Bird Species Stuart Highway 16 Mary Ann Dam 27 Barkly Hwy 34 Lake Moondarra 29 Flinders Hwy 34 White Mt NP 7 Bruce Hwy 30 Tyto Wetlands 22 Total 106

The Barkly and Flinders Highways traverse a relatively hot and barren stretch of the Outback. Taken together, we were surprised to see 55 bird species in 2 days of driving and birding these highways — mostly at rest areas.

If you exclude the drive from Alice Springs to Tenant Creek and birding Mary Ann Dam (places we had birded earlier in the trip), we saw 96 bird species driving from the Threeways Roadhouse to Cairns in 3 days.

Lodging

Tennant Creek — We stayed at the Threeways Roadhouse — a combination gas station, restaurant and campground — about 15 miles north of Tennant Creek (http://www.threewaysroadhouse.com.au/ 19.437S 134.208E). We had a deluxe Glendales room, which was pretty small but had a refrig. and air conditioning. There was a private bath but no washcloths. The meals there were Beautiful!!!

Mt Isa — We stayed at the Abacus Motel (abacusmotel.com.au/ 20.700S 139.486E) just as you come into Mt Isa from the west at 163 Barkly Hwy. This was a good location for going to Lake Moondarra birding. Good restaurant on site.

Charters Towers — We stayed at the Heritage Lodge Motel (heritagelodge.com.au 20.063S 146.284E) on the east side of town. Nice hotel, but no restaurants around.

If we were planning the trip again, I would:

Stay 3 nights in Mt Isa, more if I could find a good cottage out of town. This area has at least 7 good birding sites — see www.birdsqueensland.org.au/gazetteer-other.php.

Break-up the 481-mile drive from Mt Isa to Charters Towers with nights in Cloncurry and Richmond. This would give time to drive the back roads in the Selwyn Range between Mt Isa and Cloncurry to look for the endemic Cloncurry Parrots and Kalkadoon Grasswrens that can only be found in the greater Mt Isa area.

Highlights of the Region:

Stopping at the 6 rest areas between Threeways Roadhouse and Mt Isa to bird around the leaky water tanks.

Having Br with the Cowboy Club, and their Cowgirl friends, at the Julia Creek Roadhouse.

The Queensland Border Crossing signs:

Set your watch ahead 5 years and 30 minutes.

Queensland — It’s Beautiful one day and Perfect the next.

Disappointments

No time to bird for the special endemics around Mt Isa or Cloncurry.

Birding Summary

Of the 106 bird species we saw in Outback NT & Qld, 34 were endemic to Australia. Most of the 72 non-Australian Endemic bird species we saw were new for us. 4 species were never seen again during the 255-day trip around Australia; that is:

Name Park Gibberbird (Desert Chat) Barkly Hwy Jungle Fowel Mary Ann Dam Plum-headed Finch Tyto Wetlands Singing Bushlark Flinders Hwy

Special Comments:

On Oct 20 we were up early and left Alice Springs at sunrise, just before it started raining hard. We drove an hour before we saw our first vehicle — a truck-train.

We stopped at the Ti Tree Roadhouse for Cappuccino, Chocolate Milk, and an apricot pastry that was half-dipped in yogurt — fresh and good! Later we drove thru Wycliffe Well — the UFO capitol of Australia. We stopped at the Marbles for a picnic lunch in our air-conditioned car. A flock of Crested Pigeons circled the car hoping in vain for crumbs, while a Nankeen Australian Kestrel looked on from its nest in a boulder crevice.

For dinner at the Threeways Roadhouse I had the lamb roast with mint sauce, oven baked potatoes & carrots, cauliflower & broccoli in a cheese sauce, cooked cabbage, and peas with a malt-milkshake for dessert. My wife had fish and chips.

On Oct 21 it was dark, hazy and windy when we left at 5am. We headed east on the Barkly Highway toward Mt Isa (pronounced “Eye-za”). The sun showed up at 6:24am as a white spot on a grayish-haze ceiling. The sun looked like a full moon on a dark night. In the first 2 hours we saw 2 truck-trains and 2 cars. We stopped at all 6 rest areas to look for birds. The rest areas have windmills to pump-up ground water for the tourist and birds. We probably saw a1000 Zebra Finches today.

We stopped at the Barkly Homestead for snacks. These remote locations have to generate their own electricity. The Homestead said they use 500L (131 gallons) of diesel a day to generate electricity. It’s amazing the bird life you can see along the road. We saw 22 bird species this morning including 4 first time birds; i.e., Australian Bustard, Peregrine Falcon, Oriental Cuckoo, and Gibberbird (a.k.a. Desert Chat).

As we drove east we realized how desolate this part of Australia is. You can go 100’s of Km’s without see a house or car. There are a few large Stations out here. The kids go to school by short-wave radio. . At 10:30am we lost the small trees and scrub, and crossed the ancient Lake Eyre seabed. There is only short-sunburned grass as far as you can see in any direction — sort of like Kansas without the wheat fields.

We picnicked at the rest area near the Queensland Border. Afterwards, we went birding at the nearby James River. There was water in the river so there were lots of birds including a Yellow-billed Spoonbill. We got to the Queensland border at 12:30pm. They say 1000 Australians a week move to Queensland, after all — “It’s Beautiful one day and Perfect the next”.

At 2:07pm a westbound truck threw-up a small rock that cracked our windshield. This is the first time I have ever had any damage to a rental car.

We arrived at Mt Isa at 3:15pm — pretty fast driving for us.

We drove to Lake Moordarra in the late afternoon. We saw 29 birds including the most beautiful Glossy Ibis in brilliant magenta breeding colors we have ever seen.

We ate dinner at the hotel. My wife had pumpkin soup. I had mushroom soup, and an Australian Ribeye (a thick filet steak on the bone) with shrimp in a chili sauce accompanied with mashed potatoes & garlic bread. Afterwards, we talked to the owners. They said it hadn’t rained in Mt Isa since April. The humidity was running around 4%. The really low humidity explains why our clothes dry so fast on the clothesline.

On Oct 22 we were off at 5am for the long drive to Charters Towers. Initially the road was hilly and curvy. Eventually it became straight and narrow, but hummocky in places. We drove 50 to 70 mph depending on road conditions.

In the dawn light I spotted a Kangaroo waiting for us beside the road. I slowed way down, and sure enough, as soon as we were close he hopped out in front of us and bounced up a rock embankment without breaking stride. The locals have heavy duty “Bull Bars” and “Kangaroo Catchers” on their vehicles so they can run them down. I guess that is why we see so many raptors all over the Outback.

The first 150 miles was a bird rich environment. We saw Wedge-tailed Eagles several times, heaps of Kites, dozens of Red-wing Parrots, 50 Little Black Cormorants out for their morning fly-about, hundreds of Galahs, flocks of small Budgerigar Parrots, stacks of Crows, and of course, Zebra Finches beyond counting. We have never driven anywhere with this amount of bird life along the road.

Our new bird of the day was the Singing Bushlark (a.k.a. Australasian Bushlark). We found it on a fence at a rest area, singing of course!

We saw a large Goanna (lizard) in the road. Goanna’s like to eat Cane Toads, which has greatly reduced the number of Goannas around.

We arrived at the Julia Creek Roadhouse for our second Br at 9am, having gone 254 Km. There was hardly any room in the Roadhouse since the local Cowboy Club, and their Cowgirl friends, had just returned from Bush Camping. The car park was full of farm trucks with tents, camping gear, horse trailers, and dogs. They thought we looked odd in our long sleeved shirts and birding pants. We got our new favorite Br (Maxibond Ice Cream Sandwiches, milk and coffee) and left; but not before my wife smiled at a young guy who was checking out our attire and grinning from ear to ear.

East of Julia Creek the road, the electric poles and horizon seemed to get swallowed up in a mirage — it looked like everything was under water ahead. This is the really Hot part of Australia. The Australian all-time record high temperature is from this area at 127.5 degrees F. The bird life is greatly reduced in this area.

We had lunch in Hughenden (pronounced U-in-din) at the best, and only Cafe, open today. My wife had crumbed Barra and chips. I had a steak sandwich with the works, potato wedges and a Sassaparilla drink (my first and last). — my wife got my beetroot drink (like root beer).

About an hour east of Hughenden we begin to get tall Eucalyptus trees. Later we came to the White Mountains NP on the Great Dividing Range with lots of trees growing on a scenic rocky landscape.

My wife was napping this afternoon and I was getting tired, so we put on some fast tempo music to keep us awake. That worked OK until 3:25pm when a Blue-winged Kookaburra flew out of a tree hit the side of our car. There was no damage to the car and we couldn’t find a dead bird on the road, although we were both sure we saw some feathers flying behind the car.

We arrived at Charter Towers at 5pm having driven 481 miles, dead knacked. We had peanut butter sandwiches for dinner and got ready for bed.

On Oct 23 we headed out at 6am. We drove the Flinders Highway to Townville and then went north on the Bruce Highway to Cairns (pronounced Cans).

We stopped on the outskirts of Townville and saw several Helmeted & Noisy Friarbirds in a roadside park.

We stopped for birding in Ingham at the Tyto Wetlands. We saw a mixed flock of Crimson Finches, Chestnut-breasted Manikins, and Plum-headed Finches. We also saw a Yellow-bellied Sunbird and a large blue Ulysses Butterfly – know locally as the Big Blue Butterfly.

We stopped in Cardwell on the Pacific coast for lunch at Muddy’s. They had just closed, but quickly reopened for us. We had fresh Mud Crab sandwiches and chips. The crabs were caught locally, kept in a fish tank in the restaurant, and cooked when ordered. Pretty special — and tasty!

It rained this afternoon — sometimes hard. The driving was difficult and stressful. There were many orders of magnitude more traffic today than any other day of the trip so far. I was frequently leading the procession down the road, usually with a 36 wheeler 5-feet off my bumper.

Traffic got worse when we arrived in Cairns. We made several wrong turns and often didn’t know what we were doing in traffic circles, but miraculously, we got to the Nutmeg Grove B&B in Redlynch (www.nutmeggrove.com.au/) pretty easily — I don’t have the foggiest idea how we did it.

E-mail if you would like a file with the specific birds we saw each day.

Carl & Wilma Ball carlball@yahoo.com

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