Bruce Wedderburn’s Trip Reports
This was a birding and camping trip which included four days in Broome before travelling up the Gibb River and Kalumburu Roads to the Mitchell Plateau and then returning to Broome. The trip had originally been set up by Rob Morris late last year, Peter Waanders and Michael Kearns also joined up for the trip. I arrived into Broome on Wednesday afternoon (8th August) and had a day’s birding out at the Crab Creek mangroves and on Roebuck Bay together with Adrian Boyle, a well-known Broome birder. Michael Kearns arrived into Broome on Thursday evening and we spent the Friday and Saturday birding at Crab Creek, Roebuck Bay, Dampier Creek and some sites around Broome.
Rob Morris and Peter Waanders arrived into Broome at midday on Sunday (12th August) for the trip up to the Mitchell Plateau. All four of us then flew out of Broome on the following Sunday (19th August) to various parts of Australia.
The main targets were the two WA endemics, Black Grasswren and Kimberley Honeyeater, which are found on the Mitchell Plateau. I had previously done the trip up the Gibb River Road, from Broome to Kununurra in May/June 2004 with Coates Wildlife Tours. However as there were late rains that year, the water levels on the King Edward River were too high for us to cross safely, so we were unable to get up to the Mitchell Plateau.
This trip thus focussed on getting up to the Mitchell Plateau as quickly as possible and once we had seen our target birds, then to make our way back to Broome at a more leisurely pace. The return trip from Broome to the Mitchell Plateau involved a lot of driving over corrugated roads and we managed to travel just over 2,100 km. A far better travel option would have been to drive from Broome to Kununurra as this involves far less driving and also provides an opportunity to bird around Kununurra. There are however possible complications with rental cars and Kununurra can be expensive to fly into.
Another alternative to the Mitchell Plateau is to travel to Mount Elizabeth station and then take the private track up to Bachsten Gorge where the two WA endemics can be seen. The track from Mount Elizabeth station to Bachsten Gorge is only 150km but it can take up to eight hours to do the trip, so it can be a bit rough.
I had proposed the following itinerary, which was intended to maximise our time on the Mitchell Plateau and also to visit some places well off the Gibb River Road on the return trip, which I hadn’t visited previously.
Other camping options considered were:
- Mornington Wildlife Sanctuary – Probably a great place to visit but quite a long way off the Gibb River Rd.
- Charnley River Station – Being refurbished currently however campsites available. Mount Hart looked to be a better option.
- Silent Grove (Bell Gorge) – Can get very busy as it’s a popular camping spot, worthwhile stopping at on the way through.
- Manning Gorge – Camping site but can get very busy. Roadhouse and fuel available.
- Tunnel Creek – Day use only, no camping. Would be a good site to visit if time available.
- Derby – Could be an alternative to the last night in Broome, however better birding in Broome.
I had expected that the campsites on the Gibb River Rd would be pretty busy at this time of year, given the increasing popularity of the Gibb River Road. As it transpired only the Windjana Gorge campsite was crowded and a bit disappointing compared with my previous trip. The rest of the campsites were very pleasant and not over crowded.
The birding along the Gibb River Road was not particularly good and a lot more birds were seen once we turned off the main road for the Mount Elizabeth and Mount Hart stations, plus the areas around the two stations were excellent for birding.
The condition of the Gibb River Road was excellent although corrugated in sections. Some parts of the road were as smooth as a sealed road and in addition the road is being sealed, with long sections already sealed between Derby and Windjana, as are parts of the road between Kununurra and El Questro. It won’t be too long before the entire road is sealed and the traffic will increase still further. The Gibb River Road is a far shorter route between Derby and Kununurra than the route via Fitzroy Crossing and Halls Creek.
For the rental car I had looked at a number of options for the hire of a large 4WD including the fully fitted out camping options. The rental car companies which allowed access to the Mitchell Plateau included (a) Australian 4WD Campers, (b) Britz 4WD Campers, (c) Topless Rentals and (d) Budget Rentals. The contractual small print was quite complex to sort through, particularly the excesses applicable. The prices ranged from $3,400 down to $1,700 including the charges for anticipated excess kilometres, with most rental companies only allowing 100km free per day.
The decision was made to go with Budget Rentals, who were the cheapest, and separate travel insurance was undertaken to cover the excess liability of $6,500. It also made more sense to rent the camping equipment separately.
On the advice from George Swann, a well-known Broome birding guide, the camping equipment was rented from the Broome Hire Centre (www.kimberleycampinghire.com.au) which had a great range of equipment available for hire at reasonable rates and provided good customer service. Peter organised the rental of the camping equipment.
On Sunday morning, Michael and I collected the camping equipment (70 litre esky, fold-up chairs, table, cooking and eating equipment, plus water container), then did the grocery shopping for the trip which can be difficult trying to anticipate eating preferences. Some of the party were happy to eat out of tins for the week, however Peter and I worked up a decent shopping list which meant that we had good tasty and balanced meals during the trip.
We must have eaten well as someone said that they put on weight for the trip whereas typically on a birding trip they would eat out of tins for the week and lose weight. Eating for him was regarded as a waste of time and cut into valuable birding time. In any event the cooking was done in the evenings after sunset and most of the time taken up during the day was with packing up camp and driving. The most effective way of increasing birding time would have been to cut down on the long distances driven.
We worked out a routine of birding from first light till about 9am or 10am, then packing up camp and driving off to the next campsite. We would usually arrive into the next camp with a half hour of daylight available, enough time to set up camp. The rental car agreement didn’t allow any travel between sunset and sunrise.
Once we had the groceries, we met up with Rob at the Broome airport at midday on Sunday and started to transfer the luggage and groceries into the Budget 4WD. We had to get Budget Rentals to remove the two jump seats in the back as they took up far too much room. Luckily the 4WD had a roof rack and we were able to stow the fold-up chairs and water container on the roof.
It was still a squeeze and I have never seen so much luggage, which included telescopes, huge cameras, camping gear, books and who knows what else. Peter was the last to arrive and thankfully he was travelling light so we were able to cram everything in and head off to Derby.
I visited the Crab Creek mangroves and adjacent area early on Thursday morning and had a good mornings birding which included Dusky Gerygone, White-breasted Whistler and Crimson Chat. Adrian joined me later on in the morning and we headed back into the mangroves as the tide was coming in. We also met up with George Swann and his birding clients in the mangroves, which was nice to catch up again. As the tide advanced Adrian picked up the Common Redshank on the banks of Big Crab Creek and then found three Asian Dowitcher. I had missed the Asian Dowithcher on my previous trips to Broome so it was fantastic to finally see this bird. After midday Adrian and I saw another two Asian Dowitcher on Roebuck Bay as the tide was close to its peak.
On the Friday and Saturday birding with Michael, we found some good birds including Black-breasted Buzzard, Mangrove Golden Whistler, Red-headed Myzomela, Square-tailed Kite, Brolga, Asian Dowitcher and Broad-billed Sandpiper.
On Sunday, we managed a quick hours birding at the Broome Fishing Club and saw Lesser Frigatebird, Grey-headed Honeyeater, Cockatiel, flocks of Budgerigar and about 30 Crimson Chat.
In the morning we took a walk up the Windjana Gorge and saw several Freshwater Crocodile and a Black-breasted Buzzard. On the drive through to Drysdale River, at a quick roadside stop to admire the view of the King Leopold Ranges, Michael found a Silver-backed Butcherbird (subspecies of the Grey Butcherbird) which was one of his target birds.
Drysdale River Station
This is always a very pleasant place to stay and that evening we dined on steak, mushrooms and baked potatoes. In the morning we went to the campsite at Miners Pool and easily found Purple-crowned Fairywren for Peter and had about ten Golden-backed Honeyeater (subspecies of the Black-chinned Honeyeater) plus Banded, Bar-breasted and Rufous-throated Honeyeater feeding in eucalypt blossoms above our heads. Rob also tracked down the Northern Shrike-tit (subspecies of the Crested Shrike-tit) close to the camping area.
The road up to the Mitchell Plateau was very good for most of the way, although corrugated and it only took us about 3 hours to get up there after leaving Drysdale River. The 4WD survived the trip up although on the way back a rear light mounted in the back bumper fell out. Having arrived just after midday, we headed off for some birding. I went down to Little Mertens Falls and saw White-quilled Rock Dove close up and Green-backed Gerygone, but none of my target birds. Also saw about four Monjon, which is the smallest of the rock-wallabies, and is able to disappear into very small rock crevices. This is a fairly recent discovery for Australia and was only first identified and described in 1978.
Back at the campsite that evening, the others reported back seeing both the Kimberley Honeyeater and Black Grasswren.
The next day I birded with Peter and we managed to find a single Kimberley Honeyeater but no Black Grasswren. We walked through to the Mitchell Falls which are magnificent and took a well-earned swim in the Mertens River. On the way back we saw a pair of Buff-sided Robin just after I took a tumble and crashed down onto my camera. Luckily only the UV filter was smashed but I did damage my knee in the fall.
Back at the campsite Michael and Rob reported back that they had seen the Black Grasswren in the area Peter and I had been looking, just after we left. This was becoming a bit of a worry for me, was I going to miss out on the grasswren? That evening we had Fettuccine Carbonara which was one of the best meals of the trip.
On the final morning I went off by myself to find the Black Grasswren and met up with Rob who had just heard them calling. I then spotted a pair of Black Grasswren where Rob had heard them calling and we had great views of them calling and bouncing along between boulders.
That was cutting it a bit fine but what a bird, must be the best looking of the eight Grasswren species that I have seen. After that we packed up camp and headed back down to the Gibb River Road and on to Mount Elizabeth station.
Mount Elizabeth Station
As soon as we turned off the Gibb River Road for the Mount Elizabeth Station we started to see many birds, together with the flocks of Varied Lorikeets and Budgerigar. The station is located about 30 km off the Gibb River Road and provides access to the Wunnumurra Gorge on the Barnett River and the Hann River gorge. The Bachsten Gorge and Walcott Inlet can also be reached using the private track leading from the station.
This was a very pleasant campsite and the station receptionist made us feel very welcome when we arrived. The birding around the campsite area was excellent for birding and we had Southern Boobook in the camp in the evening. Peter and I headed down the creek in the morning to enjoy the many birds close-up as they were coming in to drink. Interesting birds seen that morning were Black-tailed Treecreeper, Northern Rosella and Black-bellied Crimson Finch subspecies. We visited the Hann River gorge on the way out in the morning.
To do this area justice would probably require a stay of at least 4 days, if one wanted to visit Bachsten Gorge and Walcott Inlet. Based on limited birding reports for the area, the Black Grasswren and Kimberley Honeyeater can readily be seen close to the Bachsten Creek Bush Camp, without the interference of helicopters which one gets on the Mitchell Plateau.
Mount Hart Station
The Mount Hart Station is located in the King Leopold Range Conservation Park about 50 km off the Gibb River Road. The scenery along the road is impressive and there are many small creek crossings on the way in. The station has some good accommodation, with tropical gardens and orchards surrounding the homestead, however this had been closed down by the time of our visit, due to the drop-off in visitor numbers. The camping site has green lawns, good ablutions and is located alongside the Barker River. The Mt Matthew Gorge and Annie Gorge on the Barker River are within a short drive from the homestead.
Mount Hart was run as a working cattle station until 1987, when it was declassified as a viable pastoral lease, to become the proposed King Leopold Range Conservation Park. Mount Hart is now run as a joint management venture between APT Kimberley Wilderness Adventures and the DEC (Department of Environment And Conservation – formerly CALM).
The birding around the campsite and the homestead was very pleasant. We had Australian Bustard and Spotted Nightjar on the airstrip, Australian Masked Owl at the homestead in the evening plus Great Bowerbird and Green Oriole (subspecies of the Yellow Oriole) in the gardens. The one bower in the garden had a collection of bleached snail shells and broken pieces of a green bottle.
That evening we had Fettuccine Capsicum which had a range of left-overs including Red Capsicum, tinned mushrooms, onions, bacon and some other vegies, which was declared to be the best meal of the trip by some.
After refuelling we visited the Derby wharf for a brief stop. Nothing too exciting there as the tide was well in although there was a crazy Cockatiel flying around in and out of the mangroves. Had a nice snapper and chips from the Wharf Restaurant and Take Away, always a good spot for a meal.
Broome Bird Observatory
We stayed at the BBO for our final night and enjoyed the luxury of sleeping in beds. The next morning Rob and Michael headed into the Crab Creek mangroves and mud, whilst Peter and I cleaned up the rented camping equipment and disposed of the leftover supplies. We then had a brief stop on Roebuck Bay to see four Asian Dowithcher bunched up together, a Broad-billed Sandpiper and other waders. Michael managed to get a photo of a Common Redshank, which he found when he was when he was going through his photos. As Michael had been looking for the Common Redshank since he first arrived into Broome, I am not sure if he was pleased or disappointed to have only seen it from a photo.
Overall it was a good trip with the various target species being seen by the four of us. For myself, it was a long way to go for two birds, however seeing the Black Grasswren made it worthwhile.
The final cost for the week long Gibb River Road camping trip was $900 per person, which included the 4WD hire, fuel, food, camping equipment hire, accommodation and other trip expenses. This worked out to be very reasonable cost for the trip.