Galahs drinking at billabong
Late afternoon drinkers at the old Georgetown racecourse billabong. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

A hoof-print oasis in the middle of a drought

In sunbaked, drought-stricken outback Australia, tiny pools of water can evaporate before your eyes. It is a precarious place for man and beast.

But for a nature photographer, the harsh, mind-altering hopelessness of the landscape offers opportunities to get up-close and personal with wildlife usually too shy to be seen from other than a great distance.

Water – preferably in small concentrations – is the essential ingredient. You also have to do your homework. Knowing in advance where pools and trickles from a creek might be, and what bird species they are likely to attract, are major advantages.

And for someone like me (visually and audibly challenged), it is important to take along a friend with sharp eyes and a great ear for the calls. Hence, the recent camping trip described below was done with Cairns birder par excellence, Darren Phillips.

Abandoned racecourse

We chose Georgetown (nearly 400 km west of Cairns in far north Queensland) as our base because of the nearby Cumberland Dam and a billabong in the centre of the town’s long-abandoned racecourse. We knew both should be good for finches and other bush birds.

Group of brown quail drinking
Brown quail at the Cumberland Dam ‘hoof-print oasis’. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

We were not disappointed, and thanks largely to Darren’s exceptional birding skills, we sighted (and often photographed) 98 species in a couple of days at the above locations. Nothing to get too excited about, I know, but our interest was in good sightings and the chance to make some decent images. And that’s what we got.

Fascinating history

At first glance, there is little of great interest about Georgetown, which straddles the Gulf Development Road in the Shire of Etheridge. But it has a rich and fascinating history – not least that its geology suggests the area may have been part of North America some 1.7 billion years ago (source Wikipedia). It was also the site of a gold rush in the 1870s.

However, we were seeking bounty of a different kind: certain finches and other small birds – out there in the vastness of the straw coloured savannah country, where the loudest sound was the crackling underfoot of sun-crisped leaves shed by very thirsty trees.

The stake-out

We found a small amount of water – just damp mud really – in an otherwise bone-dry overflow channel behind the Cumberland Dam and decided to stake it out. (Talking seems not to spook birds but sudden movements will surely see them off.)

Diamond dove in tree
The delicately marked diamond dove loves dry and semi-arid scrublands. ©Tony Neilson

As the sun descended, so we were treated to a procession of incoming birdlife in search of a quick drink. A flock of brown quail (about 20) emerged from the undergrowth – they quickly spread out and moved wary, like well-trained soldiers out on patrol. Squatter pigeons came in by a more direct route, white-winged trillers, rufous-throated and banded honeyeaters, black-throated and masked finches and little friarbirds dropped down from the surrounding trees. And a striated pardalote suddenly appeared like magic.

A small pool

The primary target of the birds’ attention was a small ‘pool’ of water at the bottom of a cow hoof-print in the now totally baked mud. We returned next morning with high hopes, but virtually all of the water had gone, so we reverted to plans B and C.

Weebills, red-browed pardalotes, yellow-rumped thornbills, banded lapwings, white-throated gerygone and big flocks of diamond doves were among other good sightings in the Georgetown area. And let’s not forget the tawny frogmouth at the campsite who’s oom-oom-oom call pulsed between 12 and 31 repetitions for two nights. (Marginally better than counting sheep.)

©Natural Images 2018


©2018 TONY NEILSON All Rights Reserved. All images are protected by Australian copyright law and cannot be downloaded or reproduced without my permission. Please contact me.


2 thoughts on “THE DRIVING FORCE

  • Ian Hughes October 31, 2018 at 8:40 PM Reply


  • Ian Hughes October 31, 2018 at 8:42 PM Reply


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