Murray River and Peel Harvey Estuary Houseboat Weekend

For a different kind of excursion

we booked a houseboat for a weekend to allow us to explore the Murray River and Peel Harvey Estuary. The weather forecast was for a sunny weekend as our group of 10 members arrived at the Ravenswood depot at 9.00am on Saturday October 26 and loaded our gear aboard.  As if knowing a Nats Club group was checking in, Striated Pardalotes were chirping away in the trees near the jetty and a very large King’s Skink was hanging around the jetty boardwalk for our arrival—nice sightings to start the weekend. We were then given a detailed induction that explained the equipment on the houseboat, navigation within the river and estuary systems and finally how to drive the boat. Norman Aitken put up his hand to be the skipper and was soon taking the boat for a supervised test run down river for about a kilometre and return before we were free to start our cruise.  We decided to firstly travel upriver from Ravenswood to the limit that houseboats are allowed to travel (near the ‘Redcliffe on the Murray’ restaurant and the Peel Zoo). We had chosen October for the houseboat outing to coincide with nesting season for many waterbirds: we were not disappointed. Darters were common, with most at some stage of the nesting process—some sitting on eggs, others with well-developed chicks, through to fully-fledged juveniles that were foraging for themselves. Their nests in the Casuarinas and Melaleucas were right on the edge of the river. Many other birds were nesting or had young, including Wood Ducks, Pacific Black Ducks, Grey Teal and White-faced Herons. 

Many Ospreys were sighted as we made our way upriver, either soaring overhead or perched on a branch. One was seen eating a fish on the riverbank, presenting us with a great photo opportunity. Other raptors that we spotted were Whistling Kites and Brown Goshawks. Little Pied Cormorants and Little Black Cormorants were also common sightings as they dried their wings after periods of diving for fish. Yellow-billed Spoonbills were also frequently spotted resting up amongst the trees along the river. Along the banks of the river, the Flooded Gum (Eucalyptus rudis) was in flower. However, in some areas they are at risk of falling into the river due to erosion of the river bank and, in areas of farm paddocks, there is no second line of trees ready to take the place of any that fall. One of the causes of the erosion is the drivers of recreational craft disregarding the notices to keep their speed less than 5 knots to minimise their wake. Unfortunately we saw many examples of this rule being flouted. Back at Ravenswood we had a brief encounter with a small group of dolphins that were busily pursuing fish. We continued downstream from the road bridge at Ravenswood for a short distance and found one of the allowed overnight moorings, where we tied up for the night. 

After a good night’s sleep and an early breakfast

We set off downriver early on a beautiful Sunday morning. Our early start was rewarded with several sightings of Nankeen Night Herons returning to their roosts. A bonus sighting was a small flock of six Cattle Egrets flying upriver and an additional group of three was also seen a little later. Common Sandpipers were spotted foraging along the river bank. ‘The Plan’ was to visit Cooper’s Mill (near the Nats Club Field Station on Culeenup Island) but when we arrived there were two boats already moored, so ‘Plan B’ was to cross the estuary to Boundary Island and stop at Cooper’s Mill on the return trip. Boundary Island is a man-made island—formed when excavated sand and rock from the construction of the Dawesville Cut was deposited in the estuary. On our way in we added to our bird list by scanning the many sand bars through our binoculars. We sighted a nice flock of Fairy Terns, some Bar-tailed Godwits, Grey Plovers, Pied (Black-winged) Stilts, Pied Oystercatchers and many Little Pied Cormorants and Little Black Cormorants. Other small waders were present but we were unable to identify them as we looked into the sun. An Osprey was seen eating a fish on one of the channel markers as we approached the island.

We went ashore for a brief exploration of the island.

The vegetation was mainly Acacia sp., not the Samphire normally found on small islands around the estuary. The island is also home to a small group of kangaroos (plus the associated Kangaroo Ticks, as several of our group were to find out!) Two Ospreys were seen above us as we prepared to cast off—they appeared to be having a disagreement and were busily skirmishing with each other with their legs and talons extended in attack mode, providing us with some entertaining viewing. Arriving back at the Cooper’s Mill Jetty, we found that the two boats were still moored, again preventing us from going ashore so we headed back up the river, stopping for an ice cream and coffee at ‘Pelicans’ café. We further explored up the river until pulling into the Ravenswood Depot to spend the night. Once again we had a brief sighting of a small pod of dolphins. We decided to have dinner at the Ravenswood Hotel and on return to our boat we were greeted by a family of Brush-tailed Possums: with mum, dad and a baby near the jetty.

The weather changed to cooler, grey overcast conditions for our final day. After another early breakfast we once again headed down to the Cooper’s Mill jetty and this time we were pleased to see that it was vacant, enabling us to make fast and go ashore. We met the resident caretaker, who gave us a brief history of the mill and some of the issues facing the island, the primary one being erosion. He said that it was possible that the mill would be carefully deconstructed and rebuilt at another location in order to preserve it. We then explored the area around the mill, adding to our bird list with many woodland bird species. An odd-coloured Australian Ringneck was seen, a possible hybrid with a Red-capped Parrot*? A Grey-tailed Tattler, one of the migratory waders, was seen. 

Culeenup Field Station

We took a walk up to the WA Naturalists’ Club Field Station, as many of our group had not previously visited it. Along the way we had a close encounter with a Dugite that was trying to absorb some warmth from the fleeting periods of sunshine. Another Dugite was spotted in a different area a little later. Around the inland wetland we found a species of samphire in flower (the taller shrub form Halosarcia indica). The Angled Lobelia (Lobelia alata) and Twin Leaf Myoporum (Myoporum oppositifolium) were also in flower. Returning to the jetty we had a quick snack before continuing our journey. Here we saw some more dolphins, though only fleeting glimpses—insufficient to get any fin details to enable an identification of the individuals using the onboard copy of the Dolphin Watch Fin Guide. We then began to slowly make our way back upriver, taking a close look at many of the Darter nests as we passed by. We stopped at the jetty near ‘Jetty’s Bar and Grill’ for an onboard lunch (the café was closed). While there we spotted a Purple Swamp Hen at the nearby wetland and a small King’s Skink sunning itself at the entrance to a crevice in a limestone wall. It was then time to head back up to Ravenswood to return the houseboat. 

It had been a great weekend and we had thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company and the wildlife we had encountered. We had been amazed at how productive the river and estuary system is in supporting the large number of waterbirds and raptors that we had seen. In total our bird list for the weekend was 67 species.

Colin Prickett

*Or possibly a bird suffering from the viral ‘Beak & Feather Disease’ (Psittacine circovirus), which results in discoloured and deformed feathers – Editor