Georgetown and Karumba (Southern Cape York and the Gulf of Carpentaria)

Tim Dolby

One thing that's worth considering when you visit Cairns for a birding trip is to do an 'add-on'. One such add-on is heading north up Cape York to places such as the Iron Range. Another is to head to the southern sections of Cape York. Aside from Mt Isa, the major birding locations to visit are Cumberland Dam and, moving west, Karumba. This report covers these two fantastic birding spot.

Red-headed Honeyeater, just one of the special birds of Karumba's mangroves. 
(Geoff Jones: see Geoff's new photographic field guide Birds of Australia).

The benefits of visiting Cumberland Dam and Karumba - apart from seeing some fantastic Australian landscapes - is that you get see a wide range bird species not generally found around the Cairns. To give you a taste of what I mean, at those two sites you may see: White-breasted Whistler, Zitting Cisticola, Yellow White-eye, Arafura and Mangrove Grey Fantail, Red-browed Pardalote, Sarus Crane (if you've missed seeing them already on the Atherton Tableland) and Black-breasted Buzzard. You'll also pick up additional honeyeaters such as Red-headed, Rufous-throated, Banded and Yellow-tinted Honeyeater. Not bad! And, for those of us who like seeing wild finches, there's finches galore! You might expect to see Star, Black-throated, Masked and Plum-headed Finch! And there's a chance of Pictorella Mannikin and (with a big stroke of luck) Gouldian Finch.

Agile Wallaby can be quite common. At night, in Karumba, they were dozens in tour campsite. 

The drive there - the Gulf Development Road (also known as the Savannah Way)
The drive to Cumberland Dam from the Atherton Tableland is approximately 300 km west along the Gulf Development Road. (Note that it's also known as the Savannah Way - the full length of the Savannah Way extends from Cairns to Broome.) From there it's another 350 km to Karumba. A round trip from the Cairns region adds about 1300 km to any trip, so you'd need to allow for about 4-6 additional days. If you have time, believe me it is well worth the effort!  The habitat around Cumberland Dam is covered in subtropical grassland, savannah, and subtropical savannah that consists typically of a tall dense grass layer and varying densities of trees, dominantly eucalypts of which the most common is Darwin Stringybark (Eucalyptus tetrodonta). Southern Cape York is some of the most arid regions in the world; however, after significant rains, vegetation in the region transforms and birdlife similarly responds. The soils colour in southern Cape York is a wonderful red ochre color, a color that is featured in the large scattered termite mounds.

While driving the along the Gulf Developmental Rd look for signs of birdlife along the roadside. Look out for Ground Cuckoo-shrike - when I did this trip I saw them at a number of locations, and there's a chance of seeing Little Woodswallow. Stop along any creek line to look for Black Bittern, and look in the larger gum trees for Red-browed Pardalote; they tend to have a preference for any smooth bark eucalypts.

The best time to look is late spring. Aside from that, in the grassy woodlands between Mt Surprise and Georgetown, look for Red-backed Kingfisher, Ground Cuckoo-shrike, Little and Red-chested (uncommon) Button-quail, Striated Pardalote (Black-headed turopygialis ssp), White-throated Gerygone, Weebill, and White-breasted, White-browed, Masked and Black-faced Woodswallow.

You'll see quite a few kangaroo along the way, such as Eastern Grey Kangaroo, Euro and Agile Wallaby - particularly if you're traveling at night, so be careful! Unfortunately many end up as road kill, which attracts the larger raptors such as Wedge-tailed Eagle, Spotted Harrier, Black and Whistling Kite and you're also likely to see Black-breasted Buzzard, one of the main highlights for the trip. For instance, I saw a pair approximately 20 km west of Mount Surprise.

Cumberland Dam.

Located at the very base of Cape York, Cumberland is a ghost town 24 km west of Georgetown (-18.301016,143.350335). Formerly a gold town, in the late 19th century it had four hotels. Like many gold town, once the gold was gone the town went bust. The last resident left in the 1940s. The only remaining building is a square brick chimney from the old Cumberland Battery. There's also two dams, intermitently covered with water lilies. The main dam is known as Cumberland Dam. Today Cumberland Dam is mostly used as a rest area for people doing the 'big lap'. However is also happens to be one of Australia's top birding sites! And for good reason. Note: there's no facilities at the dam - there's bush camping only.

When I visited Cumberland Dam a few years ago, with birding pal Greg Oakley, we deliberately timed our trip to coincide with the end of the dry season and the beginning of spring. This was a perfect time, much of the water on the Cape had dried up, so it gave us the best shot for seeing birds coming into drink at the dam. At this time of year, therefore, the dam acts as an oasis in a vast arid landscape. Despite being located in the arid interior of southern Cape York, an amazing 171 species of bird have been recorded at Cumberland Dam, making it truly one of northern Queensland’s great birding hotspots! (See a full eBird list here.)

Part of the reason Cumberland Dam is so good is because it's in a fantastic location geographically. The central and southern section of Cape York is a transition zone for many species at the very limit of their normal range. For instance, the dam is basically the northern limit for Plum-headed Finch, the eastern limit for Pictorella Mannikin, Gouldian Finch, Yellow-tinted Honeyeater and Spinifex Pigeon, the western limit of Squatter Pigeon, and the southern limit of Masked Finch. Cumberland Dam is also pretty much the dividing line between the distribution of Paperbark Flycatcher (to the west) and Restless Flycatcher (to the east). The birds at Cumberland Dam tend to be Paperback Flycatcher. They're slightly smaller than Restless Flycatcher, ad listen for their distinctive musical toowee call. You do also get Restless Flycatcher, so this is one of the only places in Australia where you potentially get both species side by side. 

Also most of the Cape York subspecies start their general distribution around Cumberland Dam, such as the Brown Treecreeper ('Black' melanota ssp), Pale-headed  Rosella ( 'Blue-cheeked' adscitus ssp) and Red-browed Pardalote (yorki ssp), Black-throated Finch (black-rumped atropygialas ssp) and Masked Finch ('White-eared' leucotis ssp). 

The Plants
Before talking about where to see the birds, (for those interested) the main trees in Cumberland Dam area are River Red Gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis), Coolibah (E. microtheca), Darwin stringybark (E. tetrodonta), Long-fruited Bloodwood (Corymbia polycarpa), Northern Swamp Mahogany (Lophostemon grandiflorus), and Gutta-percha (Excoecaria parvifolia).

While the smaller trees in the area include: Soapbush Wattle (Acacia holosericea), Lancewood (A. shirleyi), Whitewood (Atalaya hemiglauca), Cochlospermum (Cochlospermum gillivraei), Red Ironwood (Erythrophleum chlorostachys), Sandpaper Fig (Ficus opposita), Gardenia (Gardenia vilhelmii), Darwin Silky Oak (Grevillea pteridifolia), Quinine Bush (Petalostigma banksii) and Wild Plum (Terminalia platyphylla). There's also a nice range of Melaleucas such as Silver-crowned Paperbark (Melaleuca fluviatilis), Silver Cadjeput (M. argentea) and Broad-leaved Paperbark (M. viridiflora). 

Yellow-tinted Honeyeater. As you west across Cape York, you start to seem them around Cumberland Dam. Greg Oakley.

The Birds  
We arrived at the Cumberland Dam just after dusk; during the night we heard Southern Boobook, Australian Owlet-nightjar and a distant Spotted Nightjar.

In the morning I awoke in my tent to a fantastic dawn chorus. Importantly some of the calls were unfamiliar to me! That meant new species! The most plentiful birds were the honeyeaters. These included Yellow-tinted, Rufous-throated, Brown, Yellow, Banded, Grey-fronted and Blue-faced Honeyeater, Yellow-throated Miner, and Noisy and Little Friarbird. Fantastic. The first bird I saw, after getting out of my tent, was Rufous-throated Honeyeater, which turned out to be the most common honeyeater in southern Cape York.

Nearby a Pied Butcherbird sung its wonderful pipping call (my all time favourite bird call). While a family of Grey-crowned Babbler claimed as their own several trees near my tent. And there was a very large Great Bowerbird's bower immediately opposite our bush camping area (-18.30178,143.350788).

Squatter Pigeon, Cumberland Dam.
All up I've spent several days at Cumberland Dam - once on the way through to Karumba (on the Gulf of Carpentaria), and once on the way back to Cairns. In terms of seeing finches and honeyeaters, I found that the most productive dam (in terms of birds coming in for their morning drink) was not the main dam but the smaller dam immediately to the west (-18.29905,143.349211). At this dam several mid-sized shrubs acted as a protective vantage point for the finches and honeyeaters to roost upon just before coming down to drink. At one point we had six species of finch roosted in these over-hanging shrubs: Zebra, Double-barred, Black-throated, Masked and Plum-headed Finch and Chestnut-breasted Mannikin. Does it get any better than that!

Well possibly. I had my fingers crossed in the hope of seeing Gouldian Finch or Pictorella Mannikin, but it was not to be! In terms of Gouldian Finch, there had been no sightings on Cape York for several years. During survey's conducted by Cairns Naturalists Club, they reported Gouldian Finch at the dam every year between 1974 and 1997. Unfortunately they haven't been seen since. Spinifex Pigeon was also once quite regularly, however there are now very few records.

In terms of waterbirds, the larger dam is the place to be. At this dam there were Green Pygmy-Geese, Magpie Geese, Hardhead, Grey Teal, Pink-eared, Pacific Black and Australian Wood Duck, Intermediate and Great Egret, White-faced and White-necked Heron, Australasian Grebe, Little Black and Little Pied Cormorant, Australasian Darter, Australian Pelican, Black-winged Stilt, Red-kneed and Black-fronted Dotterel (there's at least one at every dam or waterhole in the outback) and Comb-crested Jacana. On Cape York, Comb-crested Jacana seems to turn up wherever there's a spare lily pad, even if the dam's in the middle of no-where and only the size a tennis court. Now that's a pretty good list of waterbirds.
Although we didn't see any, some of the rarer waterbirds recorded here include Cotton Pygmy-Goose, Freckled Duck, Black Bittern and Australian Painted Snipe. In summer there's a good chance of  migratory waders such as Sharp-tailed and Marsh Sandpiper, Common Greenshank and Latham's Snipe.

A Great Bowerbird's bower. There are several bower around Cumberland Dam - including immediately in front our camp site.

One evening a mixed flock of up to a thousand Plumed and Wandering Whistling Duck landed on the north side of the dam. It's a great site to see such a large flock of these birds, and to to hear the combined cacophony of their twittering whistling calls. When I was a kid this 'Whistling Duck" were known as Whistling Tree-Duck, so it was nice to see that they settled down to roost in the trees beside the dam. One of the striking thing about Cumberland Dam was the colour of the light at dusk and twilight, changing to become the most subtle pastel blues and pinks. 

Aside from the waterbirds, there was a great variety o woodland species around the dam. A good spot to look for woodland birds is the bush on the eastern side of the larger dam. Here we found Squatter Pigeon, a target species for Cumberland Dam. The birds here have the red-eye ring of the Cape York ssp peninsulae.  Here (and in the area generally) there were Australian Bustard, Black-necked Stork, Blue-winged Kookaburra, Red-backed and Forest Kingfisher, Australian Pratincole, Diamond and Peaceful Dove, Brown (Black) Treecreeper, Red-winged Fairy-wren, Red-browed and Striated Pardalote, White-throated Gerygone, Black-faced Woodswallow, Paperbark Flycatcher, Apostlebird and White-bellied Cuckoo-shrike.

Woodland parrots included Pale-headed (Blue-cheeked) Rosella, Red-winged Parrot and Varied Lorikeet (the north-east limit for this species), Cockatiel and Budgerigar, and an abundance of Galah, performing each night as they came in to drink. There were also a spectacular flock of Red-tailed Black-Cockatoo, flashing their dramatic red tail every time they took off. While raptors included Whistling and Black Kite, Nankeen Kestrel, Collared Sparrowhawk and Australian Hobby.

Sarus Crane. They were first recorded in Australian along the road between Normanton and Karumba in 1966.

Georgetown to Normanton
From Cumberland Dam we headed to Karumba, on the way passing the famous Gulflander railway, a train that runs between Croydon and Normanton, or to put it another way (with no disrespect intended) between nowhere and nowhere. Unless you happen to live in nowhere, in which case it's a great railway service!

In grasslands between Georgetown and Normanton, keep an eye open for Emu, Australian Bustard, Sarus Crane and Brolga, and birds of prey such as Black-breasted Buzzard, Spotted Harrier, Wedge-tailed Eagle, Black Kite, Brown Goshawk, Collared Sparrowhawk, Brown, and Peregrine Falcon. The famous Gulflander rail line runs between Croydon and Normanton.

Road from Normanton to Karumba We had a pair of Sarus Crane with young as well as large numbers of Brolga. Sarus Crane and Brolga breed in the gulf area during the wet season, before heading to the Atherton Tableland during the dry season. It was on this road that Australia's first Sarus Crane were record in 1966. Some authorities suggest that they may have been in Australia for a lot longer that that, but were simply overlooked due to the similarity to the Brolga. We also saw Australian Bustard, Black-necked Stork, Glossy Ibis, and Australian Pratincole, tha latter common in the patches of grassland that had been recently burnt.

Mutton Hole Wetlands
On the road between Karumba and Normanton you pass by the  Mutton Hole Wetlands (9000 ha). It's a 30 km of wetlands that extends inland from Karumba. During the Wet season, large areas of the wetland are covered by shallow water, and they are one of the largest, most diverse and least fragmented natural wetland aggregations in Australia. As a result they attract vast numbers of water birds, and they are a breeding, feeding, moulting and drought refuge for Plumed and Wandering Whistling Duck, Sarus Crane and Brolga. 

 Between August and April, it's one principal regions in Australia to be visited by migratory shorebirds, such as Marsh, Curlew, Sharp-tailed and Pectoral Sandpiper, Red and Great Knot, Red-necked Stint, and sought-after species such as Little Curlew, Oriental Partincole and Oriental Plover. Surveys estimate that an average 122,000 shorebirds visit each summer and 23,000 birds each winter

Note that the road to Karumba is bitumen, so access is available year round. However it's always worth checking the current road conditions, particularly during December, January and February, when the water levels during the Wet can be very high. 

Star Finch - a spectacular looking finch - they can be seen near Karumba. Geoff Jones.

Karumba is located on the coastline with savannah grassland, meandering wetlands stretching up to 30 km inland, savannah scrub and coastal mangrove environments. Put simply, Karumba is an absolutely fantastic place for mangrove species, and easily one of the best and most accesible mangrove areas in Australia.

While in Karumba we camped in the Karumba Point Caravan Park. During the night several Barking Owl called from a the larger trees in the caravan park, while Agile Wallalby started to appear in large numbers, as if from no where.

Habitat and planrts around Karumba 
The Norman River and other creek lines in the area, are bordered by extensive areas of mangrove, predominantly Grey (or White) Mangove (Avicennia marina). Behind the coastal fringe of mangroves you find areas of salt flats. These area hasve low shrubs such as Samphire species (Halosarcia), with patchy grassy areas consisting of Marine Couch (Sporobolus virginicus) and Rice Grass (Xerochhloa imberbis).

Greg Oakley, doing the daily bird count at Karumba Pub.

Riperian woodlands around Karumba are dominated by broad and narrow leaved Melaleucas such as Silver-crowned Paperbark (Melaleuca fluviatilis), Purpurea Tea Tree (M. Trichostachya),  Silver Cadjeput (M. argentea), Cajeput (M. leucadendra), and the Broad-leaved Paperbark (M. viridiflora). 

Other species of tree in the riperian woodlands include River Red Gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis), River She-oak (Casuarina cunninghamiana), Pandanus Palm (Pandanus spiralis), Northern Swamp Mahogany (Lophostemon grandiflorus). There's a range of Terminalia species such as Bendee (Terminalia bursarina), Yellowwood (T. Oblongata), and Durin or Pear Tree (T. platyphylla). 

Frequently the riparian woodlands includes some rainforest elements, where you get trees such as the Leichhardt Tree (Nauclea orientalis), Cathormium Tree (Cathormium umbellatum) and Sweet Sandpaper Fig (Ficus opposita) and Cluster Fig Tree (Ficus racemosa).

The dry woodland around Karumba dominated by Bloodwood (Corymbia spp.), Gutta-percha (Excoecaria parvifolia), with scattered Coolabah (Eucalyptus microtheca). 

From a birdwatchers perspective, when in Karumba I think there are a few essential thing to do. These are listed below.

Mangrove just north of Karumba
Firstly, it's important to take a walk in the mangroves to the north of the intersection of Norman and Carron St (-17.437961, 140.857318). This is an area of tidal salt flats with several creeks line behind the coastal fringe of the Norman River, and supports a diverse range of mangrove species. It's scattered with Grey (or White) Mangove (Avicennia marina) and supports low shrubs such as Samphire species (Halosarcia) and patchy grasslands of Marine Couch (Sporobolus virginicus) and Rice Grass (Xerochhloa imberbis). 

In the the head-high Grey Mangove clumps, we saw White-breasted Whistler, Yellow White-eye, Mangrove Robin, Mangrove Gerygone, inhabited the head-high mangrove clumps. As with most mangrove birds, pishing is a very effective way to attract most of these birds. Mangrove Golden Whistler also occur in these areas.

In the scattered grasslands between mangroves look for Tawny Grassbird, Variegated Fairy-wren, Golden-headed, and Zitting Cisticola (race Normani). Zitting Cisticola are often confused with the more common Golden headed Cisticola; the former are distinguished by the lack of golden coloring on the head and rump, tend to be paler underneath, are more heavily streaked on top, and during breeding have a heavy white edge to the tail feathers. Other places to look for Zitting Cisticola are the grassland around the airport and along cemetery road.

Other birds seen north of the town included Rufous-throated, Yellow (the western-most limit and Red-headed Honeyeater,  Rufous Whistler, Broad-billed and Paperbark Flycatcher, Mangrove and Arafura Grey Fantail and Little Bronze-Cuckoo. 

The Ferryman and the Norman River
Secondly it's essential to do a boat trip with the Ferryman River Cruises. Generally they leaves at 9:00 am (during the dry) from the boat ramp in the centre of town - although it is worth booking the night before. On the boat trip we saw Red-headed Honeyeater (they like flowering Grey Mangrove), White-breasted and Mangrove Golden Whistler, Mangrove Robin, Mangrove Grey and Arafura Fantail, Broad-billed and Paperbark Flycatcher, Little Bronze-Cuckoo, and Mangrove Gerygone! Now that's a bird list that rivals any of the great birding boat trip in Australia!

On, or near, the water, we saw Black-necked Stork, Brahminy Kite, White-bellied Sea-Eagle and waders such as Terek and Common Sandpiper, Whimbrel, Eastern Curlew, and Greater and Lesser Sand Plover, Beach Stone-curlew (Burbinus neglectus) and Little Tern! We also travelled out of the mouth of the Norman River, where Alligator Point and Elbow Banks were great spot for waders at low tide.

White-breasted Whistler. Relatively easy to find in the mangroves just north of Karumba. (Photo Ian Montgomery)

The Sunset Tavern and the Norman River mudflats

Thirdly: you have to have a few quiet beers at the Sunset Tavern in Karumba. This is not only because it has spectacular view the sun setting over the Gulf of Carpentaria, but it is also located in front of an excellent area of mudflat that attracts large numbers of waders! So you can do some wader-watching pub-games i.e. spot the Broad-billed Sandpiper, while having a quiet beer at the same time! Everybody is happy! 

During the dry season, up to 30-40 m of mud banks along the edges of the Norman Rivers is be exposed during spring low tides. Hence the large number of waders. Aside from Broad-billed Sandpiper, we also saw Lesser and Greater Sand Plover, Grey Plover, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper and Red-necked Stint. Note: an alternative to eating at the pub is to buy a Barra Burger - yes, a burger made with Barramundi - from the local fish and chip shop. They're pretty damn good! 

Star Finch!
Last, but definitely not least, it is important to search for Star Finch at small dam immediately to the north of the the intersection of Karumba Point Road (Col Kitching Drive) and the Karumba Development Road  (-17.457325,140.860299). Here, in a small bush beside the dam, I saw a mixed flock of over 100 finches. That flock included Star, Double-barred and Zebra Finch and Chestnut-breasted Mannikin! Ahh.... 

If you have time, other spots worth visiting in Karumba are the grasslands near the airport, the areas opposite the caravan park, the area opposite the Karumba Health Centre (on Walker Street) and, of course, what birding trip would be complete without a trip to the rubbish tip! (You thought I was going to say the treatment plant!)

Eastern Curlew: at Karumba, because the mudflats are directly in front of the pub, it's possible to do some serious wader-watching while having a quiet beer or two. We saw a Broad-billed Sandpiper this way!

Other wildlife around Karumba
In terms of other wildlife the coastal waters around Karumba is a good spot for sea turtles. Green, Loggerhead, Flatback, Hawksbill and Olive Ridley Turtle are all found there. While dolphins in the area include spectacular Irrawaddy River Dolphin - a species that's genetically closely related to the Killer Whale - and there are also Indo-Pacific Humpback and Bottlenose Dolphin. Dugong are regularly seen in aerial surveys of the Norman River, and their feeding trails travel through local seagrass beds. The seagrass beds (made up of two species is Halodule pinifolia, and a small percentage of H. ovalis) occur around the mouth of the Norman River i.e. near Alligator Point and the Elbow Banks. And, of course, the saltwater tidal estuaries at Karumba are the habitat of Saltwater Crocodile!

From Karumba, we headed back to Cumberland Dam, to break up the trip back to Cairns. I know others have continued along the Savannah Way to the Mt Isa region then further a field. Indeed, one day I want to drive the entire length of the Savannah Way - birding from Cairns to Broome. Now that'd be a great trip!

Karumba - spectacular sunsets over the Arafura Sea.