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Illawarra Birders Deniliquin Weekend

Deniliquin might seem a long hike for a weekend’s birding but boy was it worth it! Many of the 17 members who made the seven-hour trek had taken extra days off to make the most of the opportunity to see this unique part of the country with vast plains stretching as far as the eye could see.

One of my first priorities on arriving in the area was to head out on the Barham Road to seek out the birds for which it is famous - Ostriches! There has been a feral population breeding here for decades - it is one of very few places in the country where you can see them running wild. Considering they are the world’s largest bird, they were surprisingly hard to find and when we did finally track them down they were very skittish and didn’t hang around.

The official programme started on the Friday morning, with members heading south out of Deniliquin to the Reed Beds Bird Hide at Mathoura. This site was worth visiting just for the bird hide alone - one of the best I have seen in Australia. It is an imposing two-storey structure and importantly, the approaching track is screened so that you don’t scare off the
birds before you get there! After taking in a selection of water birds our next stop was at nearby Gulpa Creek which offered a very pleasant woodland walk. At the walk’s end the fierce midday sun was beating down on us and we retreated
to our base at the Riverside Caravan Park. The Park has a well-equipped (and air-conditioned!) games room - a great place to escape the heat. There followed a club pool/table tennis/air hockey competition which unearthed some previously
hidden talents. When the heat had become less oppressive we ventured out again, this time to Deniliquin’s Island Sanctuary.

On the Saturday morning we were picked up from the caravan park at 6am by our birding guide Phil Maher for what would prove to be one of the most memorable days of our birding lives. Apart from a 2-hour afternoon break we were out birding until Phil deposited us back home - exhausted but ecstatic - at 1.30am!! Our tour bus (cunningly disguised as a school bus) headed out eastwards, making frequent stops to check out sites where there was a “possibility” of certain species. Except that Phil, who has spent his lifetime in this area, seems to know each bird in the area individually and sure enough there they would be.

Our first extended stop was at a property at Tuppal Creek which was a rare example of how the plains might look when not cleared for agriculture. The open woodland was home to a wide variety of birds such as Southern Whiteface, Chestnut-rumped Thornbill, Diamond Firetail, Hooded Robin and hundreds of Masked and Whitebrowed Woodswallows. The highlight was an Australian Owlet-Nightjar who kept an eye on us from his hollow. Our next
stop was at Turkey Nest Dam where there was a ‘possibility’ of crakes - of course Phil Maher delivered, with 2 crake species and the bonus of an Australasian Bittern flushing from the reeds right in front of us! On our way back to the caravan park Phil called in on a mate of his who had Scarlet Honeyeaters in his yard - extremely rare in this area. He also had a
Grey shrike-Thrush nesting in a hanging basket.

A two-hour break in the heat of the day allowed us to catch our collective breaths before we were back on the road with more treats in store. Phil took us to a section of a travelling stock route that he had replanted with native vegetation over many years. The site was alive with honeyeaters, including Spiny-cheeked, White-fronted, Black and even a Pied. We then headed north towards the Nevinson’s property where we were to spend the evening. On the road in we saw Emus, Horsefield’s Bushlarks and a Black-faced Woodswallow sitting beside the nest it had built on top of a fence post - inside were 4 chicks. We checked out some old farm buildings and came across what Phil assured us was the only Red-backed Kingfisher in the area.

As the sun started to set we adjourned for sandwiches, coffee and cake before embarking on the most amazing spotlighting session I have ever had the privilege to be part of. Our group was taken out across the property in 4-wheel drives which kept in radio contact and converged whenever a bird was found, ensuring we all had great views. The first birds found were 2 Stubble Quail, a lifer for many. As was the next bird, a Little Buttonquail. Then came the star of the show, a beautiful female Plains-wanderer. This unique, enigmatic and endangered bird has no close relatives and is in a family all of its own. The female is the more colourful as she is not involved in raising the young. A male Plains-wanderer soon followed, together with Inland Dotterel, Banded Lapwing and Barn Owls. We came across a group of roosting Ground Cuckoo-Shrikes as well as a Hobby, a Peregrine and a Tawny Frogmouth. As we were turning back towards home the road was obstructed by a stunning Owlet-Nightjar that posed very nicely for photos in the car headlights.

I was in bed by 2am but not for long as Phil was back at 8.00am for the next leg! He whisked us around the town to get great views of Superb Parrots and an unexpected Collared Sparrowhawk. At the Island Sanctuary we had more woodland birds including Varied Sittellas, a family of Tawny Frogmouths and beautiful Yellow Rosellas, the local (yellow!) form of the
Crimson Rosella. As we drove to the next site in the Murray Valley Regional Park the rains came, but between squalls we were able to get to the Square-tailed Kite’s nest that Phil had lined up for us. As the rain continued and our route took us past the caravan park, there was some talk of perhaps calling it a day. But Phil urged us to battle on and tempted us with
the tantalising prospect of sewage ponds! Our braving the blustery weather paid off with Blue-billed Ducks and Whitebacked Swallows our reward.

One final visit to a nearby wetland saw the last addition to Phil’s bird list - Plumed-Whistling-Ducks - which by now had reached an impressive 148 species. For many of the group it was now time to start the long drive home; others had booked a further night’s stay to allow a more leisurely trip home. I took the opportunity to hop over the border into Echuca to work
on my Victorian bird list.

All members agreed that this had been a most enjoyable and productive trip. On behalf of all who took part I would like to thank Penny for organising it and Phil Maher for sharing with us his limitless knowledge of the local fauna and flora. All Photo’s by and text by Martin Potter