Gluepot Reserve & Billiatt Conservation Park

This report covers a winter trip (early July) to Birds Australia’s Gluepot Reserve. Part of the Riverland Biosphere Reserve on the South Australia and NSW border, it is located in the centre of the largest block of intact Mallee woodlands in Australia. On the way home from Gluepot we stopped at Billiatt Conservation Park, another Mallee reserve 150 south of Gluepot. BIG thanks to Greg Oakley for the use of some of his images in this report, Kay Parkin for her Red-lored Whistler images, Sandra Wallace and Ian Montgomery for the use of their Scarlet-chested Parrot images. To see more of Ian’s superb photography visit Birdway at http://birdway.com.au/.
Immature Scarlet-chested Parrot.

Despite being the middle of winter I somehow managed to convince a couple of friends of mine – Greg Oakley and Fiona Parkin – to join me, with a vague (but obviously convincing) promise of seeing Scarlet-chested Parrot! Being a mid-winter trip I was also interest to compare the birdlife on the reserve with previous spring visits.

The wonderful Babbler Campsite.

Getting There
Gluepot’s located 64 km north of Waikerie. The turn-off to Gluepot is from Morgan Rd, 30 km east of Morgan, 84 km west of Renmark (17 km north Waikerie). The Reserve is signposted – from Morgan Rd travel 1.5 km to the first gate and follows the signs. The last 50 km into the reserve is via a well-maintained dirt track traversable by conventional 2WD and caravans, although I’d recommend AWD or 4WD, particularly after rain

Accommodation
While at Gluepot we camped at the Babbler Campsite, 3 km east from the Visitor Centre. No wood fires are permitted on the Reserve, not good if you’re visiting in Winter! Although we brought in a little gas heater (which attached the top of a gas bottle), perfect for cold evenings. When visiting Gluepot you also need to be self-sufficient, bring in all your water and food.There is an entry fee of $5 per day per vehicle, campers $10 per night per vehicle.

1 of 15 Brown Quail feeding along roadside.

Another thing worth noting is that Gluepot’s located in a fruit fly control zone (linked to the Riverland district). There’s a checkpoint at the South Australia border, where you’ll have to discard all our fresh fruit and vegetables. Here we quickly ate most of our apples, and then restocked in Waikerie.

On the way up to Gluepot the signs were looking good for some good winter birding. Near Wycheproof we came across a flock of 15 Brown Quail feeding on the roadside. It’s been a great year for this species with a very high report rate across south-east Australia. A stop-off at Terrick Terrick National Park produced large number of open woodland birds, include large numbers of Rufous Songlark – a species that usually migrates north during winter. In an area just south of Reigal’s Rock we counted at least 20 birds. We also got onto Spotted Harrier, another migrant that usually heads north during winter.

Lunn Road (the road into Gluepot)
The drive into Gluepot is always interesting. On the ferry across the Murray River from Waikerie you can usually see waterbirds such as Australian Darter, White-faced and White-necked Heron, Great and Intermediate Egret, and in the trees along the Murray, Little Corella, Blue-faced Honeyeater and Pied Butcherbird. Once you turn into Lunn Rd, the road into Gluepot, large numbers of Yellow Rosella (race flaveolus of the Crimson) start to appear, as well as Common Bronzewing, and Crested Pigeon.

Splendid Fairy-wren.

As you drive further north the Yellow Rosella start to disappear, to be replaced Australian Ringneck (‘Mallee’ race barnardi), Blue Bonnet (yellow vented race haematogaster), and Mulga Parrot. A particularly good spot to see these parrots is a cattle drinking tray about 10 km from the turn-off. Once you reach Taylorville Station and then Gluepot, the habitat starts to become pure Mallee. The roadside along here is perfect for Chestnut-quail Thrush. I’ve never failed to see them on the way in, usually running into the bush from the roadside. On a trip to Gluepot in 2001 I remember seeing 6 Quail-thrush before I’d reached the Gluepot’s Information Centre. Also along the track you can also see Emu, Western Grey Kangaroo and the odd Red Kangaroo.

Michael Hyde Information Centre. Full of excellent birding resources.

The Babbler Campsite and Surrounding Woodlands
One of the great experiences at Gluepot is waking up on a sunny morning at the Babbler Campsite after a cold night. During the night the temperature dropped to an impressive minus 5 degrees celsius! Our tents were completely covered in ice. Fortunately I’d planned for this. I deliberately packed two sleeping bags and two self-inflating air mattresses. During the night I was actually warm.

Black Oak woodlands at Gluepot.

The open woodlands around the Babbler Campsite provide some of the best birding at Gluepot. There are two walks from the Babbler Campsite – a south walk and north walk.

The Babbler Camp South Walk, about 3 km long, passes through an excellent Black Oak (Casuarina pauper) open woodlands, with a nice range of shrubs as an understorey, such as Wait-a-while (Acacia colletioides), Spinebush (Acacia nysophylla), Bullock Bush (Alectryon oleifolius), and Desert Cassia (Senna artemisioides).

Along the track there was also a nice range of flowering Eremophila, including the purple flowered Silver Emu-bush (Eremophila scoparia), red-flowered Tar Bush (E. glabra glabra) and Small Tar Bush (E. glabra murrayeana), Turpentine (E. sturtii), an the delightful Twin-leaf Emu-bush (E. oppositifolia), flowering profusely, attracting nectar feeding honeyeaters such as Spiny-cheeked and White-fronted.

Twin-leaf Emu-bush (Eremophila oppositifolia)

Many of the arid woodland species that are uncommon at other areas of Australia are surprisingly common at Gluepot – testifying to the wilderness quality of the reserve. This is particularly evident along the South Walk. In one particular spot, just 200 metres from the campground, we had a mixed-species feeding flock of Gilbert’s Whistler, Crested Bellbird, White-browed Treecreeper, Chestnut Quail-thrush, Splendid Fairy-wren (with a male in full breeding plumage, unusual for this time of year), Red-capped Robin and Chestnut-rumped Thornbill. Not bad. Further, all these birds showed no sign of being particularly shy, and we could have birded with them for as long as we wished.

Similar species were seen along the start of the North Walk, with the addition of Striped Honeyeater. Striated Grasswren and Shy Heathwren are also found along this walk; on a ridge with Mallee with an understorey of Spinifex (Triodia scariosa scariosa) halfway along the walk.

Due to recent rains, the ground surface along both walks was covered with an extremely complex cryptogamic crust. Microscopic plants, such as small mosses, lichens and algae together with slime from bacteria and fungi, formed a fantastic skin-like coating over the ground at Gluepot, literally holding the soil together. Of interest, it is not surprising that the greatest biodiversity on Earth is within 2 cm of the soil surface.

Cryptogamic crust: Gluepot’s ground surface. (Note: Eremophila oppositifolia flowers.)

Other birds seen around the Babbler Campsite included Inland Thornbill, Hooded Robin, Grey Butcherbird, Grey Shrike-thrush, White-browed Babbler, Jacky Winter, Grey Butcherbird, Brown-headed Honeyeater, Pallid Cuckoo, Restless Flycatcher, Hooded and Red-capped Robin, while Regent and Mulga Parrot flew through the campsite itself. Nocturnal birds at the campsite included Southern Boobook and Australian Owlet-nightjar. Although not recorded on this trip, around the campsite I’d previously recorded Chestnut-crowned Babbler, Black-eared Cuckoo and Spotted Nightjar.

Scarlet-chested Parrot.

Track 8 T-section
The T-section is about 9 km east of the Information Centre (4 km east of the Babbler Campsite) at the end of Track 8, at the beginning of the Malleefowl Walk. This is a well-known site for Black-eared Miner. The key features to look for when distinguishing the level of hybridisation between Black-eared Miner and Yellow-throated Miner:

1. The darkness of the rump – the darker the rump, the less hybridization. It is worth noting that the local Yellow-throated Miner is often referred to as White-rumped Miner (race flavigula).

Black Oak or Belah (Casuarina pauper)

2. The darkness of the feathers under the chin/lower jaw. Again the darker the colour, the less hybridized the bird is. In essence, true Black-eared Miner the colour of feathers on the chin are darker than the feathers on the throat.

I’d seen Black-eared Miner at the T-section on my first visit to Gluepot. At the time I wasn’t actually looking for them. I’d parked here to walk south along the Birdseye Border Track to look for Striated Grasswren. After getting some excellent views of the Grasswren (at one point I was surrounded by 4 birds, only several metres away, and all calling), I returned to the T-section only to find a flock of Black-eared Miner sitting in a tree above where I’d parked the car. The area around the T-section has since been burnt out in fire in 2006. However the Black-eared Miner are still here. On this trip we saw a flock of 20 birds plus, most of which were hybrids.

Along the Malleefowl Walk, which walks south from the T-section, look in the larger clumps of Spinifex for Striated Grasswren. Halfway along the walk there’s a seat to view a Malleefowl mound. The end of the walk is also reliable place to see the Red-lored Whistler, favouring the low mallee on low sand dunes.

Mallee Bordering Track 8
One of the best areas of Mallee bushland at Gluepot is north of Track 8, particularly the area just north and northwest of the T-section. A good way to access this area is via the  Birdseye Border Track, parking between the T-section and Grasswren Tank. Stop on the any of the decent sand-dune ridgelines that runs east to west (there’s a nice dune about 700 m from the T-section) and then walk west into the Mallee.

Red-lored Whistler.

The best birding is about 500 metres in from the track, where the main trees are White Mallee (Eucalyptus dumosa), Red Mallee (E. oleosa), Yorrell (E. gracilis) particularly on the brown soils, and on the sand dunes Ridge-fruited Mallee (E. incrassata), and there is a nice understorey mosaic of Spinifex (Triodia scariosa scariosa). Don’t forget to take a compass and water – you don’t want to get lost here. With a relatively open canopy, the bush here exhibits a post fire age of at least fifty years, perfect habitat for rare Red-lored Whistler.

Malleefowl mound.

We got onto one (perhaps two) Red-lored Whistler. When we approached, the bird (s) came in for a quick look, and then disappeared. Pretty standard behaviour for Red-lored Whistler. Every other time I seen Red-lored Whistler they’ve behaved in exactly the same way. A brief appearance, and then gone. Other birds recorded here were Yellow-plumed Honeyeater (the most common birds on the reserve),  Brown-headed Honeyeater, Jacky Winter, White-browed Babbler, Inland Thornbill, Weebill, and we came across a disused Malleefowl mound.

Scarlet-chested Parrot
A major part of my logic for visiting Gluepot in winter was the possibility of seeing the extremely rare Scarlet-chested Parrot, a potential new life tick for me. It wasn’t good logic i.e. visiting Gluepot on the smell of an oily rag in winter to see Scarlet-chested Parrot, but at least it was logic. I had also planned to visit Danggali Conservation Reserve, north of Gluepot, where the chance of seeing Scarlet-chested Parrot was probably slightly higher, however the road from Canopus Dam to Tipperary Hut (where they’re occasionally seen) was closed.

Female Scarlet-chested Parrot.

The chances of seeing this rare bird in the Gluepot is always pretty slim, if not zero, with only a few sightings a year. However surprisingly most Scarlet-chested Parrot reports are made in mid-winter, and there had been a report of a large flock being seen three weeks earlier. My feeling twas that it was a good time to see parrots, particularly cohorts of post breeding immature birds dispersing out of their normal range looking for food. There had also been some fantastic recent rain throughout much of inland Australia, extending back to spring 2010. The rains had turned the vast arid areas of inland Australia from dry and drought stricken landscapes into lush green pastures and forests. In the last six months I had travelled across much of inland Australia, visiting the Red Centre around Alice Springs and the MacDonell Ranges, the Flinders Ranges, southeast Western Australia near Albany, Dryandra and the Stirling Ranges, Kangaroo Island, and east to Croajingolong in Victoria. With the exception of Western Australia, all theses sites were green and lush, with superb birding. Gluepot was the same; to put it mildly Gluepot is currently looking superb! There was plenty of plant growth, flowering gums and Eremophila and other shrubs and succulents everywhere, and an extremely complex ground cover . Lots of food for hungry birds.

Variegated Dtella (Gehyra variegata)

We were fortunate to see a large flock of approximately 20 Scarlet-chested Parrot, mostly immature and female birds, with a couple showing reddish coloring on the chest. We got these on a track east of the Information Centre. As mentioned, they’d also been seen at Gluepot three weeks earlier, however the observer had informed me that he’d looked for them many times since and they’d obviously left the area. While driving to through Gluepot I said “What we need right now is a large flock of Scarlet-chested Parrot on the road directly in front of us.” A minute later a large flock of Scarlet-chested Parrot came screaming down the track directly in front of us, and then flew around the car, some so close that I had to check the grill to see if we’d cleaned any up.

Gluepot Reserve – currently the landscape is dominated by succulent plants.

[As an aside, over the year I’ve unfortunately (never intentionally) hit quite a few birds with the car. It pains to me to mention this, the more interesting birds I’ve hit list include Red-backed Kingfisher (stupid bird few straight into the car door), Budgerigar, Crimson Chat, Diamond Dove, Zebra Finch, White-browed Woodswallow, Galah, Australian Magpie, Australian Raven, and a few others. It would have pained me to have added Scarlet-chested Parrot to the list, although I would probably have had the best my “hit-by-car” list in Australia.]

To meet much of their fluid requirement Scarlet-chested Parrot has been linked to a number of plant species such as the succulent Broad-Leaf Parakeelya (Calandrinia balonensis), a plant found at Gluepot. Interestingly the succulent doing well at Gluepot at the moment is a Grasswort species – not only dominating Mallee landscape at Gluepot, but also across much of the Murray-Sunset and Hattah-Kylkyne. I’ve never noticed this plant before, and as yet I haven’t been able to identify it. My feeling is that the Scarlet-chested Parrot are feeding on this plant, possibly explaining the large flock at Gluepot.

The other thing I noted about the Scarlet-chested Parrot was their call. As they flew past the car I noticed their call was quite unlike any other Neophema I’d heard, the closest being Turquoise Parrot. There was no tsiting or buzzing. Their call was a far-more mellow tweeting. This surprised me. When I’d looked for them previously I’d been listening for a classic Neophema call. It may well be there, but I certainly couldn’t hear it.

Echidna tracks in the sand.

At the Scarlet-chested Parrot site we also came across the track of Short-beaked Echidna. They are found at Gluepot, indeed their image appear on the Gluepot banner. However they are not often seen

Other Sites at Gluepot
There are a few walks that I didn’t do on this visit that are worth mentioning here. The Whistler Tank Walk (about 6 km long – so give yourself time) commences from the car park on Track 8 (1.5 km from the Visitor Centre). It takes you through a range of habitats including Mallee with an understory of Spinifex, Black Oak, and stands of Senna and Acacia. Keep a look out for Striated Grasswren, Chestnut Quail-thrush, Southern Scrub-robin, Chestnut crowned Babbler, White-browed Treecreeper, and Spotted Nightjar (sometimes flush along the track). A hide (at 2.5 km) overlooks a watering point provides an opportunity to see birds such as Regent Parrot, Gilbert’s and Rufous Whistler, Striped and Pied (nomadic) Honeyeater. This walk is usually regarded as best place to see Scarlet-chested Parrot; look for them being around the carpark area near Whistler Tank.

Black-eared Miner hybrid at Billiatt Conservation Park

Around the Grasswren Tank, located in the northeast corner of the reserve, you might see Regent Parrot, White-browed Treecreeper, Gilbert’s Whistler, Shy Heathwren, Crested Bellbird and occasionally Black-eared Miner. White-browed and Brown Treecreeper are found near the near the Homestead Dam, and Scarlet-chested Parrot have occasionally visited the dam. The Gypsum Lunette Walk, which starts from the main Waikerie to Gluepot road about 6 km south of Emu Tank, can be very active in birdlife, and is a good walk for Black-eared Miner and Striated Grasswren.

Billiatt Conservation Park

A brilliant little Mallee reserve, the habitat of Billiatt Conservation Park is comprised of sand plains and hills covered with Mallee. Running north to south through the Park, access is restricted to the Lameroo-Alawoona Rd. Despite this, there is excellent birding location along this road. The southern entrance to the Park is 35 km north of Lameroo. A site where the extremely rare Western Whipbird (race leucogaster) has been recorded is on the west side of the road 42 km north of Lameroo (30 km south of Alawoona). Here there is a roadside pull-in (located 400 m before the road turns east). Red-lored Whistler and Striated Grasswren prefer the habitat 2 to 3 km further north of here, between 43.5 and 46.5 km from Lameroo (around 25.5 to 28.5 km from Alawoona). Black-eared Miner (mostly hybridized) are also found here.

Superb examples of Spinifex (Triodia scariosa) at Billiatt Conservation Park.

36 from Lameroo (1 km after you enter the park from the south) turn west onto a small bush track and pull off the road; this is a good area for birding, and it is well worth climbing to the near Trig Point (133 m), providing views over the park.

At Billiatt Conservation Park keep a look out for birds such as Malleefowl, Regent Parrot, Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo, Golden and Gilbert’s Whistler, Southern Scrub-robin, Chestnut Quail-thrush, Crested Bellbird, Black-eared Cuckoo, White-eared, Purple-gaped, Tawny-crowned, Spiny-cheeked, White-fronted and Yellow-plumed Honeyeater. While driving through the park along Lameroo-Alawoona Rd there’s plenty of areas that are worth stopping and investigating, looking, and listening for bird activity.

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