Rare Bird Notes. . .

by Natasha Schischakin


Posted October 10, 2005

Back from the Back O'Bourke

Natasha Schischakin

The "Back o' Bourke" is described in Australian slang dictionaries as "a very long way away" and the "far outback" and the "back of beyond". The writer Henry Lawson wrote that "when you know Bourke, you know Australia".  

Visiting Australia was always on my lifetime "to do" list. Growing up in Brazil, I was fascinated with the idea of a country whose wildlife was so different and unique. Cockatoos seemed very exotic, and kangaroos and koalas appeared cuddly and friendly. Australia seemed as different from Brazil as any country on earth. 

It took longer than I expected, but I finally got my opportunity to visit Australia when I was invited to be a speaker at the AVES Convention in Grafton, NSW Australia. As the plane was approaching the airport in Brisbane, the pilot pointed out the magnificent "Gold Coast" of Australia. A golden swath of sandy beach outlined the edge of a continent that that stretched out as far as the eye could see. What was surprising is that in many other countries such a spectacular coastline close to a major metropolitan city would be lined with buildings and major development, but this was a relatively unpopulated area of beach and marshes. On arrival, I and many other conference participants were met at the airport by Neville Connors and the other convention organizers and were soon on our way to Grafton. 

This was my first opportunity to see Australia and the drive followed the coast I had seen from the plane, passing through numerous small towns. Lunch was at a seaside resort town whose name I do not remember, where we grabbed traditional fish and chips and sat on the beach - feeding some very demanding gulls. Grafton turned out to be a quaint town with many hotels and motels, providing for the necessary accommodations and infrastructure for the convention. The convention itself was held in a serviceman's club in the historic district by the Clarence river. The club has a magnificent panoramic view of the river and the area. I learned that the region of Grafton was once covered with prized red cedars which were called "red gold" due to their economic value. The trees were cleared shortly after the discovery, but the town of Grafton flourished. Since the turn of the century, the city leaders have made an effort to plant many trees in the city, in particular, the Brazilian native Jacaranda tree. The city has even held the Jacaranda Festival since 1935. 

The AVES Parrot Convention has been held bi-annually in the town of Grafton, NSW since 1993 by the Northern Rivers Avicultural Society (NRAS). Neville Connors and the other AVES convention organizers have made this into an international and well attended convention. By focusing on avicultural issues, and bringing in both international and Australian speakers, the convention attracts attendees from throughout Australia and the world. Countries represented this year included Canada, the United States, Brazil, Denmark, the Netherlands, France and Singapore. One of the aspects that made this convention so enjoyable was that since its primary focus was on avicultural issues, attendees were primarily bird breeders. According to a newspaper article published in the Grafton Daily Examiner Article highlighting the work of Neville and Noddy Connors in organizing the convention and their recently published book A Guide to Black Cockatoos, over 242 delegates registered for the convention. This is certainly a much higher level of participation than many recent avicultural meetings that I have attended in the US. (AVES Parrot Convention Program & Speaker List). 

AVES Parrot Convention Speakers

Back Row, Standing: Rupert Gwee (Singapore), Etienne  van Der Stricht (Belgium), Dr. Rosangela Fonseca Teixeira de Freitas (Brazil), Dr. Bob Doneley (Australia), Morten Bruun-Rasmussen (Denmark), Povl Jorgensen (Denmark), Walt Frey (USA), Richard Polglaze (Australia). Front Row: Rachel Antignus (Israel), Mark Hagen (Canada), Natasha Schischakin (USA/Brazil). 


A highlight of the AVES Parrot Convention was the opportunity for participants to go on an "Outback Tour" following the convention. The itinerary for the tour included not only some great bird watching areas, but also tours of private avicultural facilities. This combination provided the tour participants with a fabulous opportunity to see numerous species of parrots and cockatoos that occur in the region. (List of the "Outback Tour" species of parrots and cockatoos in the area of the tour: Psittaciformes List )

“Outback Tour” Itinerary Summary

Starting out in Grafton, NSW on the first day, we headed across the Great Dividing Range to visit aviculturist and rancher John Meppems, south of the town of Moree, famous for its warm artesian mineral waters. The second day was spent traveling to the famous outback town of Bourke, on the Darling river. This included a stop in the town of Brewarrina where we observed a number of Red-tailed Black cockatoos and visited Nikki Wann, the cockatiel breeder that produced the unlikely Galah and cockatiel hybrid. On the third day, after leaving Bourke, went on to Cunnamulla for lunch where we encountered a great flock of Little Corellas roosting in trees by the river, and on to St. George for the evening. The fourth day included travel to the Les Banks collection in Toowoomba and to the walk-in aviaries of John Ellis on the outskirts of Brisbane. In the evening, we went on a lovely dinner cruise on a large paddle wheel boat, the Kookaburra Queen for an evening tour of the Brisbane harbor. On the fifth and last day of the tour, the grand finale was a visit to the Australia Zoo, owned by Steve Irwin, of "Crocodile Hunter" fame. The Northern Rivers Avicultural Society (NRAS) does an absolutely terrific job of putting on a great international conference. Anyone interested in Australasian species and aviculture should consider a trip "down under" to attend the AVES Parrot Convention in 2007.



The Outback Tour Itinerary

Grafton to Moree

Monday morning after the convention, the tour participants met back at Casuarina Parrot Gardens for coffee and to board the bus for the start of the tour. Our tour "guides" were also the convention organizers who entertained and enlightened us with their knowledge of the region and wildlife.  Phil Munn's sharp birding skills and tall tales of his supposedly hard scrabble childhood in the "outback" were delivered in true Aussie tall tale fashion. Garry Stack provided an in depth view of the wildlife and particularly the habitats of the region. Neville Connors kept everything running smoothly.

Soon we were climbing into a totally different habitat and over Australia's Great Dividing Range. This is a mountain range that runs north to south along the eastern coast of the country and provides a natural barrier between the eastern arid region of the country from those of the coastal area. We drove through a number of small mountain towns, including Glen Ellen. The drive took us through a variety of habitats from the forested areas of the mountains to the more arid region of Moree and the surrounding area.

After we crossed the range on this first day of the trip, it was particularly impressive to see the numerous Galah flocks on the side of the road. This was a grain producing farming region, and the birds were feeding on the grain that had spilled from transport trucks. I was also surprised at the similarity of the landscape of this region to that of the panhandle of Texas, from the large cotton farms to the cattle ranches. Of course the difference was that in Texas one is not likely to see kangaroo lazing in the shade of a tree or emus herding their striped chicks. (Unless it was an exotic species ranch.)

Moree is a very arid region where the ranches and farm areas are interspersed with trees and grasslands. Black kites, galahs, red-rumps and numerous waterfowl near the river and ponds were easily observed. As we traveled on, the signs of the severe drought that has plagued the area for almost four years became more apparent. Lack of water and pasture had caused the cattlemen to move their herds with hired "drovers" that transport cattle from one pasture to another trying to find food and water for the animals.  Droughts are a harsh reality of ranching and farming and obviously this one was having a serious impact on the region. According to Garry, we should have seen more emus in areas where they were once plentiful.  

I was somewhat taken aback at the sight of feral cats in the fields miles from urban settlements. Cats were deliberately introduced in an attempt to control the (also introduced) rabbit populations. This strategy did not have much of an effect on the rabbit populations, but as voracious predators, the cats are a serious threat to native Australian fauna. Aggressive attempts to control feral cat populations have had little effect. Australia is famous for the disastrous effects that introduced exotics have had on its native species, but unfortunately, we have not learned this lesson and the ecological disaster created by introduced species is being repeated throughout the world.  

In the afternoon, we toured the aviaries of aviculturist and rancher John Meppems. This was a very nice collection that included numerous Neotropical species. After refreshments, we were on our way to Moree, about 50 km away. After checking in, we gathered for dinner at a Chinese restaurant next to the motel. Somehow, Chinese food in the outback seemed to be an unexpected but most natural combination. Afterwards, many tour participants enjoyed a dip in the artesian spa pool located at the motel. Moree is known for its hot mineral spa waters and has been a destination for those seeking its supposed health and medicinal benefits for over a century. 


An idyllic river scene taken form the window of the tour bus. 

Due to the drought, cattle "drovers" move herds in search of pasture and water.

Moree to Bourke (with stops in Collarenebri and Brewarrina)

After an early breakfast, we were back on the bus and heading west towards the historic outback town of Bourke. Although the distances covered this day were significant, and much of the time was spent on the bus, the stops and the birds we saw along the way were worth the long travel stretches. The farmlands and ranches slowly gave way to a drier scrubland. The road cut a path through a two lane asphalt road that seemed to go on forever. A common sight were the kangaroos that were the unlucky fatalities of cars and trucks on the road. It was now clear that the metal grill in front of the bus served a very important safety purpose. Obviously hitting a full grown kangaroo could be considered a significant hazard to motorists of smaller cars. As we drove on, cockatiels were seen flying along the side of the road, particularly along watercourses. Again, the most common birds were mostly flocks of Galahs (it is amazing how fast one can get complacent to the sight of "just another" Galah flock!). We also saw a number of Sulphur-crested cockatoos, Australian ravens and Australian magpies along the road, as well as an occasional group of emus and kangaroos.  


After a long drive we finally reached the primarily Aboriginal town of Collarenebri. As the bus drove onto the main street the town appeared almost deserted. It was obvious that the town had once seen more prosperous days. The obligatory Western-style hotel on the corner (these seemed to be one of the most prevalent landmarks of rural Australian towns) and a general store framed the main street and shops. Collarenebri grew around an inn that once catered to the cattlemen and farmers moving into the region. The Tattersalls Hotel now sits on the site of the old inn.  Although cotton, sheep and wool are now the primary industries of the area, its location on the Barwon river makes it a premier inland fishing area popular with sport fishermen. 

Collarenebri Main Street and General Store

Collarenebri Aboriginal Cemetery

As we were getting ready to leave Collarenebri, Neville informed us that he had arranged an unscheduled side trip - a visit to a local Aboriginal cemetery. A local guide had agreed to show us the cemetery. The guide and three young women with her boarded the bus and guided the driver to the cemetery location. The unique nature of this cemetery was apparent the minute one stepped on its grounds. It has been in use as a cemetery for the local Aboriginal population since 1905. The graves showed the influence of religious colonization, and adhered to western Christian burial practices, but were also very unique, with a covering of broken and molten glass, but also a myriad of figurines and other items to represent the lives of those buried in the cemetery. Each grave was unique due to its decoration, and it soon became easy to differentiate between the graves of men, women, and children. Some were unmarked, their tombstones and identification markers lost, but others were maintained over the years. 

The grave of Cyril John Combo (known as Jack) close to the entrance to the cemetery. This well kept and striking grave adorned with many figurines of horses and dogs. He was born in 1933 and died in 1998 at the age of 65.  

The Caretaker and Guide of the Collarenebri Aboriginal Cemetery 

The guide, who was herself a caretaker of the graves, explained that they were in the process of restoring many of the gravesites, and were collaborating with a local university in researching the history of many of the graves and of those buried there. She explained that most of the graves belonged to approximately twenty local Aboriginal families, and that the cemetery was still being used. (This was obvious as there were a number of fresh graves.)

In an extremely poignant moment she identified the graves of two of her own children who had died young. But she spoke of them not as though they were here in the present, only in the cemetery. It was quite obvious that there was a considerable connection between the community and the family members who were buried in this cemetery. This was not simply a historical tourist site, but a real part of their lives with very real and personal connections.

The visit to the Collarenebri Aboriginal Cemetery was an unplanned and serendipitous event. It turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip.


After the visit to the cemetery, we were off to Brewarrina, on the banks on the Darling River.  After arriving in town, we made our way to the local servicemen's club for lunch. It is interesting to note the important role that these clubs play in rural outback communities, providing an important gathering place, restaurant and bar. As we were finishing lunch, Garry came in to tell us that a group of Red-tailed Black Cockatoos had been sighted down the street from the club. We rushed out with cameras and binoculars and headed out to find them. (I am certain the locals just shook their heads.) The birds were indeed a few blocks away, feeding on the fruits of white cedar trees. 

The similarity of the rural towns of the outback were often evident. The layout of each town was very similar, but what was striking is that each town had a prominent central memorial to those who died in World War I. The deaths were a staggering percentage of the male population of many of these towns. It was apparent that this was an event that tied these communities together in the losses they suffered.  The term "Lest we forget" was engraved on each one of the monuments. I later found that this reference was from Rudyard Kipling's poem and hymn Recessional.  In Brewarrina, as in all of the servicemen's clubs which we visited, the walls were lined with photographs of the fallen in recognition of their service and remembrance of their place in the community. 

The "Galatiel"

After lunch and the excitement of seeing the Red-tailed black cockatoos, we went on to visit the home of Nikki Wann. It must have been quite a sight to see this huge bus maneuvering the residential streets and stopping in front of a private house. The reason for this pilgrimage? An incredible hybrid between a cockatiel and a Galah.  Like many Australians, Nikki has kept a cockatiel aviary in her backyard. But she also kept a single male Galah in with her flock. Although she was breeding the cockatiels, she never even considered the possibility that the male Galah would breed with a cockatiel, despite the fact that he appeared bonded to a pied female. She got the shock of her life when she checked the aviary only to find the hybrid sitting on a branch in the aviary! When the Australian avian newspaper Talking Birds broke the news internationally, there were many skeptics who thought this was a hoax. A photo published with a newspaper article on the web appeared almost doctored, so I was particularly anxious to see this bird. The "Galatiel" hybrid was as amazing as the photo and the colors were indeed as striking. As this bird had been pulled soon after being discovered in the aviary and raised as a pet, it was particularly tame and very attached to Nikki's young son. 

 (Talking Birds article and video links.)    

The "Galatiel" was the center of attention. The hybrid was the result of a breeding between a cockatiel female and a Galah male.


A flock of Little Corellas in a field. 

Bourke to St. George (with a stop in Cunnamulla)

After leaving Brewarrina, we headed towards the historic outback town of Bourke. We arrived in Bourke and checked into the aptly named Major Mitchell Motel, which had a giant Major Mitchell Cockatoo painted on its sign. We walked to the local Bowling Club for dinner. (This not the traditional US style pin bowling, but what is called lawn bowling.) Bourke is more than just a location. Bourke is part of the outback mythology and popular language of Australia. The Australian writer and poet Henry Lawson is credited for putting Bourke "on the map" by making a famous statement after visiting in 1893 that 'If you know Bourke, you know Australia.' The "Back of Bourke" is part of the common Australian slang and means to be as far away from civilization as possible.  

We left Bourke and traveled along the Mitchell Highway on to the town of Cunnamulla and then on to St. George. This was a long drive, but we were rewarded with a group of Major Mitchell's cockatoos in a field. It is a species that is considered vulnerable as it is a habitat specialist and therefore more restricted in its range. This is also a species that is not commonly seen in the huge flocks one associates with the Galah's and some other cockatoos. Therefore seeing the birds was quite rewarding. As we drove on, the landscape became more arid and dominated by mulga trees (a member of the acacia family). Garry pointed out many mulga trees that had been pushed over on their sides. This was a practice by ranchers to provide browse for cattle during a drought.  


We arrived in Cunnamulla in time for lunch and to stretch our legs. Cunnamulla is another important town on the trade route for wool in Australia. Located on the Warrego River, its strategic trade location made it a major coach stop of Cobb and Co. in the 1870's. The town reminded me of a classic western frontier town with wide streets and covered sidewalks. The river had a high levy that was obviously built to protect the town from flooding. After getting soft drinks walked over to the top of the levee next to the river.  Everything seemed extremely quiet as it was the hot part of the day when not much of anything is stirring, so did not have that much hope to see many birds. A number of black kites were roosting on the branches just above the water, and some small unidentified passerines were flickering through the trees. However, much to my surprise, a little further down, more than a hundred Little Corellas were roosting in the trees next to the river. What was amazing is that they were not too interested in the huge influx of a busload of people standing on the bridge next to them.. and did not even bother to move. Some simply went back to napping!

Little Corellas roosting by a bridge crossing the Warrego River, in Cunnamulla

St. George

In 1845, the explorer Major Thomas Mitchell had established his base camp on the site of what is now St. George when he explored the Western Downs area of Queensland.  The city is located on the banks of the Balonne River.  As we arrived in St. George about 5:00pm, I was pleasantly surprised that the motel we were staying in was located across the street from the river and a very well maintained park complete with a walking trail. Evening was falling, but there was plenty of time to bird the park area. There were Galah's settling in on a dead tree in the river for the night, red-rumps, crimson-wings and a sacred kingfisher among other small unidentified passerines. 

St. George to Brisbane

On the way from St. George to Dalby, we stopped at a small store on the side of the highway called the Westmar Roadhouse, obviously a popular stopover for travelers going through miles and miles of outback. What was interesting is that it also had a small aviary with a two galahs tucked under some trees to the side, as well as a large wild bird feeding station. A group of Red-winged parrots were at the feeder allowing for a very close view.  After a very quick lunch in Dalby, we went on to visit the aviaries of Les Banks in Toowoomba. Afterwards, on the drive in to Brisbane, we stopped for afternoon tea at the aviaries of John Ellis. A centerpiece was the walk-in aviary, but most impressive were the huge breeding flights, 30 meters (almost 100 feet) in length. 

The Kookaburra Queen II Harbor Cruise

After traveling from St. George and visiting the two aviaries on the way, we finally arrived in Brisbane. We checked into the hotel and quickly got ready for dinner (actually in record time). In an hour we were off to harbor pier and on board the Kookaburra Queen II for a more formal dinner and a nighttime cruise.  The restored paddlewheel river boat slowly moved up through the harbor providing a truly magnificent view of the Brisbane lights at night. It was a great way to top off a very busy and fabulous day, as well our actual return from the outback. The contrast between the rural towns where time seemed to have stopped around the 50's and  modern Brisbane was striking. 

Australia Zoo

On Friday morning, the last day of the official "Outback Tour" the group once again gathered for one last trip, this time to the Australia Zoo, built by Steve Irwin of "Crocodile Hunter" fame. I have watched his show numerous times, and although Irwin is extremely entertaining, I perceived him more as an actor than a "zoo person". I was therefore extremely surprised at the absolute quality of the very professional exhibits. The zoo was spotless, well manicured and well planned. The graphics were not only educational, but entertaining. The Tasmanian devil exhibit had to be one of the best small mammal exhibits that I had seen in a very long time. 

Harriet, the world's oldest Galapagos tortoise, was collected in the wild in 1835 and brought to England by Charles Darwin on his return from the survey expedition on the HMS Beagle. 

There were many photo opportunities, a great number of staff to interact with the public, and many "encounter" opportunities between the visitors and animals. I was somewhat surprised at the close contact the staff had with the animals (particularly with the tigers), but this approach seemed to work well in this setting. The experience is not a simple passive walk through a zoo, but the day is broken up with numerous shows and activities in which the public can participate, from the famous "croc" shows to bird and tiger shows. The many show complexes such as the "Crocoseum" were impressive.  The conservation message was quite powerful, and included issues such as the introduction of exotics and the harm that they cause to native wildlife. 

I am certain that visitors left Australia Zoo more educated about wildlife without even knowing it simply because they were just having fun! 

A Koala in its typical pose - sleeping. The Australia Zoo had wonderful exhibits and many opportunities to see both native and exotic species. 

So after the Australia Outback Tour, those of us who were flying back from Brisbane the next day were dropped off at the hotel, while the others went back to Grafton. It was a wonderful trip and provided the participants with an opportunity to see a unique aspect of Australian culture and wildlife, not to mention some very impressive avicultural facilities. Certainly, Neville and all of the other organizers of the 2005 AVES Parrot Convention and the Outback Tour must be congratulated for their hard work. The fact that the Northern Rivers Avicultural Society (NRAS), a relatively small Australian regional bird club has consistently put on a world class convention shows what an organization with vision and leadership can accomplish. Australia is a place I plan on returning to, and next time I will take more time to explore ...  and I am definitely planning on going back to Bourke.


Grafton. NSW, AUSTRALIA (The Jacaranda City)

Australia Zoo. Home of the "Crocodile Hunter". 

AVES Parrot Convention, Grafton, NSW, AUSTRALIA 

BirdKeeper Magazine (Convention Sponsor)

Australian Aviary Life Magazine (Convention Sponsor)

Talking Birds: Australia's Avian Newspaper (Convention Sponsor)

 Talking Birds Galatiel" article

Australian Slang Dictionary

  Avibase: Bird Checklists of the World (Bird checklist database).

Bird List for New South Wales, Australia 

Bird List for Queensland, Australia

 Birds Australia

© Copyright 2005 Natasha Schischakin  All Rights Reserved


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