Surprise, surprise: a Bird of the Moment! I’ve been on a couple of camping trips in the last few months, so I have a few birds to share with you. The first trip was prompted by some birding friends who had found some Red-browed Pardalotes at a place called Cumberland Dam about half way between the Gulf of Carpentaria and both Cairns and Townsville. See the map below from the ebook Where to Find Birds in North-east Queensland.
At the time I was doing a major revision of the book and needed photos of both Cumberland Dam and Red-browed Pardalote, so I downed tools and set of with a couple of friends. The photo of the Dam proved easy enough (below) but the Pardalotes were more difficult. Cumberland was a gold mining town in the fourth quarter of the nineteenth century and at its peak in 1886 nearly 400 mine workers and their families lived there. Now all that is left is this square brick chimney and the dam, both built to serve the boilers that powered the batteries for crushing the gold-containing ore. See http://www.travelling-australia.info/Journal2011/22JulPtB.html.
Cumberland Dam is a well known birding spot. The area has a average annual rainfall of about 800mm/31in but 80% of that falls in the northern wet season from October to April so any persistent bodies of water in the dry season attract many birds. In addition, the region is on the western slopes of the Great Dividing Range - the Torresian Barrier of Schodde and Mason (1980) - so one can expect to find some species and races of birds different from those of coastal northeastern Queensland.
A striking example of these is the Cape York race of the Masked Finch, sometimes called the White-eared Finch. Cumberland is at the very southern tip of its range, shown below from The Directory of Australian Birds by Schodde and Mason (1999). The nominate race ranges from far northwestern Queensland to Broome in northern Western Australia and the ranges of the two races are disjoint.
When looking for the elusive Red-browed Pardalote, I found this pair of Masked Finches near the dam very busy gathering nesting material.
Their favourite material seemed to be what looked like thistle down but they also brought in feathers.
I assumed the nest was in a nearby clump of trees but on the second day they were still working away and I saw them taking the material into this clump of thick dried grass beside a barbed wire fence near where I’d first spotted them.
Here, incidentally is the nominate, western race of the Masked Finch so you can see why the Cape York race is called the White-eared Finch.
Pardalotes are easy to hear but hard to see as, unless you are lucky enough to find them at a nesting hollow on the ground, they spend their time in the outer foliage of trees. The Red-browed Pardalote has a distinctive call of about six notes, starting slow and low in pitch and then accelerating and rising. We heard three at Cumberland Dam and I went on a couple of wild-goose chases through forest and grazing country but got no more than a glimpse of one flying away and no photos. The Red-browed Pardalote quest ultimately succeeded on another camping trip: to be continued!
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