Date: Thursday, October 14, 2021

Project: Eastern Australian Waterbird Survey

Observers: Richard Kingsford & John Porter

Pilot: James Barkell

We headed out of Broken Hill in a southeastern direction, back to the Menindee Lakes.

First on our list of lakes “to be done” was the massive Lake Menindee itself, and afterwards Lake Cawndilla.

Surveying along the channel from Copi Hollow before flying the edge of Lake Menindee.

As with all these lakes, we surveyed around the shoreline of Lake Menindee where most waterbirds concentrate, ducking off to do smaller lakes as we went.

Water is let out of Lake Menindee into the Darling River through a regulator.

From the regulator we flew down the Darling River. There were very few waterbirds on either the main lake or the river.

After Lake Menindee, we headed off to do our two counts Lake Cawndilla, an equally large wetland, and a couple of small lakes near its northern part. We then moved south and surveyed a couple of temporary lakes, Kangaroo Lake and Packers Lake.

Surveying the temporary Kangaroo Lake which was about half full.

Neither had much water but because they were shallow they had quite a few ducks and other waterbirds. We finished our Menindee Lakes survey by flying across Lake Tandou, which is now abandoned as a once large irrigated cotton area. Its water was bought back by the Australian government.

Dry lake bed of Tandou Lake, once used to irrigate cotton

We then headed south because, given the amount of water in the Menindee Lakes, there was a possibility that the Darling anabranch lakes might have had water. But there was nothing, apart from a little water in some channels.

Dry Darling Anabranch Lakes

This is another major wetland system which is inevitably a casualty of overdevelopment of the Darling River and its tributaries upstream. Flows and flooding of the lakes has inevitably declined over time.

After this, our plan was to fly to refuel in Swan Hill in Victoria. We had obtained a transit permit which apparently allowed us to stay for less than 24 hours and collect fuel. But all of us started to receive messages from the Victorian Department of Health which said explicitly that we were now in Victoria and needed to isolate for 14 days. We still hadn't got anywhere near the NSW Victoria border. During all this, the dust and rain started to blow across from the west.

Dust storm

After doing a few loops and discussing what we should do next, we decided to avoid any risk that we might get caught in Victoria and head back to Broken Hill to refuel, costing us a fair bit of time. We continued to be called by Victoria’s Health Department for the next two days but could not resolve the issue until the weekend.

After refuelling in Broken Hill, we headed south to survey band 3, just south of Mildura. Here a few small saline lakes are a poor excuse for waterbird habitat. Presumably they are so saline because the groundwater has risen so much to make them hyper saline (very salty).

We then surveyed part of the River Murray again a wetland with very few waterbirds, apart from a few wood ducks.

Once we had left the River Murray, we headed for the Lowbidgee, the largest wetland on the Murrumbidgee River, just north and east of Balranald. The wind and the rain were ferocious. At one point there was lightning in the sky. Luckily we were removed from the major storms but it was very difficult conditions for surveying.

Surveying the major flooded wetlands on either side of the Murrumbidgee River, in the river red gum forests with its lagoons and swamps

It was fantastic to see so much water in the Murrumbidgee River spread out across the river redgum areas. There were significant amounts of environmental water contributing to this flooding. It was surprising to see so little of that water flooding the Gayini Wetlands which are by far the most exciting areas for waterbirds in the whole system. There was still some water spreading right across this area and making its way across the original floodplain.

Surveying the water flooding across the Gayini wetlands

There were hundreds of whiskered terns and pied stilts and small flocks of grey teal on the open areas of the Gayini wetlands. But there weren’t that many more waterbirds.

The fingers of green were dramatic as they spread across the Gayini wetlands

We surveyed the various patches of water and made our way east across the Gayini wetlands surveying as many of the waterbirds that were there. The highlight was Eulimbah Swamp, the most eastern part of the Gayini wetlands. Here there was a colony, a traditional one of straw-necked ibis, perhaps as many as 5000 nests and a couple of 100 white Ibis nests and maybe 50 royal spoonbills nests.

Colony of colonially breeding waterbirds on the Gayini wetlands

It was a bit difficult to see how progressed they were but many of the birds seemed to be sitting on eggs. They really still need a good solid flood coming down through this system for this whole colony to take off. Perhaps some of the wet weather that we were encountering would put more water up high in the catchment allowing for later flooding of this magnificent wetland. It was certainly an opportunity for our team to think about coming out on the ground and measuring the nesting success of this colony of Ibis.

Murrumbidgee River

From here we headed out along the Murrumbidgee River, east to Griffith. There was quite a bit of water over the banks, much more than we have seen for some time. We remarked how different this landscape was agriculturally. Not more than five years ago, this whole area was hectares and hectares of inundated rice growing areas which we would survey because they were flooded rice paddies. Today there was very little water that was obviously for growing rice, across this area. With the only water being off river storages or dams probably primarily for growing irrigated cotton.

An off river storage along the Murrumbidgee River which we surveyed with very few waterbirds.

Water is pumped into channels on the Murrumbidgee River and then gravity fed into these storages.

We arrived under stormy skies into Griffith late in the afternoon after a very long day of surveying.

By Richard Kingsford