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Location Australia, Queensland
Central coordinates 140o 41.62' East  17o 1.84' South
IBA criteria A1, A3, A4i
Area 886,798 ha
Altitude 0 - 18m
Year of IBA assessment 2009

BirdLife Australia

Summary The Gulf Plains IBA supports large breeding populations of the vulnerable Sarus Crane and more than 1% of the global population of Brolga, Black-tailed Godwit, Great Knot, Eastern Curlew, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Lesser Sand Plover, Grey-tailed Tattler, Little Curlew, Pied Oystercatcher, Broad-billed Sandpiper, Red-necked Stint and Black-winged Stilt along with the near threatened Australian Bustard and nine savanna biome-restricted species.

Site description The Gulf Plains IBA encompasses an extensive mosaic of saline mudflats, coastal grasslands, wetlands and woodlands in an area stretching from west of Burketown to north of the mouth of the Mitchell River, in the south-eastern Gulf of Carpentaria. The whole length of the coast is included within a single IBA as the whole area is used by significant numbers of birds, although the distribution of some species varies between years depending on the extent of flooding. This low-lying area is at the interface of the shallow Gulf of Carpentaria and the outflow of numerous river systems including the Mitchell, Gilbert, Norman, Flinders, Leichhardt and Nicholson Rivers. In the summer (December to March) wet season much of the area can be inundated as rivers overflow their banks, occasionally submerging all but the highest sand ridges. Rivers are fringed with woodlands dominated by Melaleuca spp., frequently with some rainforest elements including Nauclea orientalis, Ficus spp. and Cathormium umbellatum. Many of these riparian areas are dominated by the invasive, introduced species rubber vine Cryptostegis grandiflora that is altering the structure of the woody strata. Levees are generally dominated by Corymbia spp. (bloodwood) woodlands. Extensive floodplain vegetation includes grassy eucalypt woodlands and open-woodlands, generally dominated by Eucalyptus microtheca, and freshwater grasslands dominated by Dichanthium spp.. Depressions on the floodplains contain Oryza spp. (rice) grasslands that are of great importance to birds. These floodplains and levees are also an important resource for grazing cattle, the dominant industry in the region. In some parts, overgrazing has seen a change in the ground layer from being dominated by perennial grasses to annuals which has implications for granivorous bird species. Numerous freshwater wetlands are present, both permanent and ephemeral, and these have great importance for waterbird populations as breeding areas and feeding grounds. Marine wetlands are both subtidal and intertidal, comprising open water over unconsolidated muddy to sandy bottoms (Blackman et al. 1999). Along coastal margins, tidal inlets are fringed with mangrove low open-forests, while extensive salt flats support Halosarcia spp. (samphire) low shrublands and patchy grasslands of Sporobolus virginicus and Xerochhloa imberbis. The Gulf of Carpentaria region is an important fishery, with permanent fishing camps situtated on each major estuary. In general terms, apart from shorebirds, the fauna of the IBA is poorly documented, and the IBA may be globally important for other waterbirds. In particular, with better data, the IBA could be extended north and east of Normanton through Glenore, Miranda Downs and Dunbar to include breeding habitat for Sarus Crane. Although most of the area is cattle-grazing leasehold (with an area of freehold at Kowanyama), some areas are designated or proposed as 'Wild Rivers', which commits the Queensland government to conserving the ecological integrity of these catchments.

Key Biodiversity Individual locations are important breeding sites for congregatory waterbirds. A 1992 survey at Macaroni Swamp included Magpie Goose (c. 3500), Pacific Black Duck and Grey Teal (c. 2000), Sarus Crane (c. 100) and Australian Pelican (c. 500). The great concentration of wetlands in the Smithburne-Gilbert Fan Aggregation north of Karumba is important for many species. In 1992 a breeding colony of herons and cormorants estimated at 10-12,000 birds was noted along the Smithburne River and included egrets and Little Black Cormorant (Blackman et al. 1999). In 1982, heronries of several thousand Great, Intermediate and Little Egrets, Pied Heron, Rufous Night-Heron, Royal Spoonbill, Australian White Ibis, Australian Darter, Little Black and Little Pied Cormorant (Garnett 1985). Smaller colonies at the mouth of the Bynoe and Flinders Rivers in 1983 contained, in addition, a nest of Great-billed Heron. Mangrove Grey Fantail, White-breasted Whistler, nationally significant numbers of many other non-breeding waders, some of which show declines perhaps related to seasonal fluctuation or count timing, including Bar-tailed Godwit (1443-2087); Greater Sand Plover (1732-2504); Red-capped Plover (324-679 from 5000 in 1993); Pacific Golden Plover (48-70 from 2000); Common Greenshank (2751-6331), Marsh Sandpiper (2943-4661), Terek Sandpiper (289-4315), Curlew Sandpiper (8500 recorded 1993 and 371-537 recorded 1999); Whimbrel (1031-3441), Masked Lapwing (1514-2520), Grey Plover (577-1279) (Garnett 1989, Watkins, 1993; Driscoll 2001). Listed as endangered in Queensland, Little Tern is recorded breeding in the area, and sightings of Grey Falcon, Bush Stone-curlew, White-browed Robin and Masked Finch are recorded in the Atlas of Australian Birds database.

Non-bird biodiversity: The Southeast Gulf of Carpentaria contains important populations of Saltwater Crocodile (Vulnerable) and the more common Freshwater Crocodile. Loggerhead Turtle, Green Turtle, Hawksbill Turtle, Olive Ridley and Flatback Turtle have been recorded from the adjacent ocean and are likely to utilise the beaches of the IBA. Rare plants include Aponogeton queenslandicus and Sesbania erubescens, both found in wetlands of the area. In general, the flora and fauna of the area is poorly documented.

Populations of IBA trigger species

Species Season Period Population estimate Quality of estimate IBA Criteria IUCN Category
Australian Bustard Ardeotis australis resident  1998-2008  uncommon  A1  Least Concern 
Sarus Crane Antigone antigone breeding  1999-2002  frequent  A1  Vulnerable 
Brolga Antigone rubicunda resident  1999  1,000-2,000 individuals  unknown  A4i  Least Concern 
Pied Oystercatcher Haematopus longirostris resident  1989-1999  206-466 individuals  good  A4i  Least Concern 
Himantopus leucocephalus resident  1989-1999  5,174-8,474 individuals  good  A4i  Not Recognised 
Lesser Sandplover Charadrius mongolus non-breeding  1989-1999  1,484-4,000 individuals  good  A4i  Least Concern 
Grey-tailed Tattler Tringa brevipes non-breeding  1989-1999  481-785 individuals  good  A4i  Near Threatened 
Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa non-breeding  1989-1999  18,394-27,256 individuals  good  A1, A4i  Near Threatened 
Little Curlew Numenius minutus non-breeding  1989-1999  2,029-25,042 individuals  good  A4i  Least Concern 
Far Eastern Curlew Numenius madagascariensis non-breeding  1989-1999  1,031-1,811 individuals  good  A4i  Endangered 
Great Knot Calidris tenuirostris non-breeding  1989-1999  50,032-72,333 individuals  good  A4i  Endangered 
Red-necked Stint Calidris ruficollis non-breeding  1989-1999  16,593-29,971 individuals  good  A4i  Near Threatened 
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper Calidris acuminata non-breeding  1989-1999  3,742-6,073 individuals  medium  A4i  Least Concern 
Broad-billed Sandpiper Calidris falcinellus non-breeding  1989-1999  1,000-1,740 individuals  unknown  A4i  Least Concern 
Varied Lorikeet Psitteuteles versicolor unknown  1998-2008  uncommon  A3  Least Concern 
Yellow Honeyeater Lichenostomus flavus unknown  1998-2008  uncommon  A3  Least Concern 
White-gaped Honeyeater Lichenostomus unicolor resident  1998-2008  uncommon  A3  Least Concern 
Yellow-tinted Honeyeater Lichenostomus flavescens unknown  1998-2008  uncommon  A3  Least Concern 
Silver-crowned Friarbird Philemon argenticeps unknown  1998-2008  uncommon  A3  Least Concern 
Australian Yellow White-eye Zosterops luteus resident  1998-2008  common  A3  Least Concern 
Star Finch Neochmia ruficauda unknown  1998-2008  uncommon  A1  Least Concern 

IBA Monitoring

2008 medium not assessed not assessed
Medium - based upon reliable but incomplete / partially representative data

Agriculture and aquaculture livestock farming and ranching (includes forest grazing) - agro-industry grazing, ranching or farmin happening now some of area/population (10-49%) slow but significant deterioration medium
Biological resource use fishing & harvesting aquatic resources - unintentional effects: large scale happening now some of area/population (10-49%) no or imperceptible deterioration low
Climate change and severe weather storms and floods likely in long term (beyond 4 years) some of area/population (10-49%) slow but significant deterioration medium
Energy production and mining mining and quarrying happening now small area/few individuals (<10%) no or imperceptible deterioration low
Invasive & other problematic species, genes & diseases invasive non-native/alien species/diseases - named species happening now some of area/population (10-49%) slow but significant deterioration medium
Natural system modifications fire & fire suppression - increase in fire frequency/intensity happening now some of area/population (10-49%) slow but significant deterioration medium

Protected areas

Protected area Designation Area (ha) Relationship with IBA Overlap with IBA (ha)  
Finucane Island National Park 7,610 protected area contained by site 7,610  
Morning Inlet - Bynoe River Fish Habitat Area A 11,974 protected area overlaps with site 11,165  
Mutton Hole Wetlands Conservation Park 7,860 protected area overlaps with site 3,033  
Nassau River Fish Habitat Area A 5,214 protected area overlaps with site 4,659  
Staaten-Gilbert Fish Habitat Area A 7,976 protected area overlaps with site 6,711  


IUCN habitat Habitat detail Extent (% of site)
Forest Eucalypt woodlands  5%
Grassland Tussock grasslands  25%
Savanna Tropical eucalypt woodlands & grasslands  5%
Shrubland Chenopod shrubs, samphire shrubs and forblands  40%
Coastline Mangrove wetlands; Sand dunes & beaches  15%
Wetlands (inland) Freshwater lakes & pools; Rivers & streams  10%

Land ownership Lease-hold stations; Crown Land below high water mark.

Land use

Land-use Extent (% of site)
rangeland/pastureland major
Notes: Widespread grazing with concentrations on permanent fresh waters.
hunting minor
Notes: Traditional hunting and egg gathering.

Protection status The IBA contains one protected area (Finucane Island National Park) and overlaps with four protected areas (Mutton Hole Wetlands Conservation Park, Morning Inlet-Bynoe River Fish Habitat Area A, Nassau River Fish Habitat Area A and Staaten-Gilbert Fish Habitat Area A).

Access/Land-Owner requests The majority of the IBA is Crown Land under grazing lease. Access is restricted to people with permission from individual leasees.

Acknowledgements The nomination was prepared by Ian Fox.

References Barrett, G., Silcocks, A., Barry, S., Cunningham, R. and Poulter, R. (2003) 'The New Atlas of Australian Birds', Royal Australian Ornithologists Union, Hawthorn East.

Blackman, J.G., Perry, T.W., Ford, G.I., Craven, S.A., Gardiner, S.J. and De Lai, R.J. (1999) Characteristics of Important Wetlands in Queensland. Environmental Protection Agency, Queensland.

Driscoll, P.V. (2001) Gulf of Carpentaria Wader Studies 1998-9. On behalf of the Queensland Wader Study Group of Birds of Queensland with assistance from the Australian Wader Studies Group. Report for the Queensland Environmental Protection Agency.

Fox, I.D., Neldner, V.J., Wilson, G.W., Bannink, P.J., Wilson, B.A., Brocklehurst, P.S., Clark, M.J., Dickinson, K.J.M., Beard, J.S., Hopkins, A.J.M., Beeston, G.R., Harvey, J.M., Thompson, E.J., Ryan, T.S., Thompson, S.L., Butler, D.W., Cartan, H., Addicott, E.P., Bailey, L.P., Cumming, R.J., Johnson, D.C., Schmeider, M., Stephens, K.M. and Bean, A.R. (2001). The Vegetation of the Australian Tropical Savannas. (1:1 000 000 scale digital map). Queensland Herbarium, Environmental Protection Agency, Brisbane and the Cooperative Research Centre for the Sustainable Development of Tropical Savannas.

Garnett, S.T. (1985) Heronries of the Mitchell River Delta. Sunbird 15: 1-4.

Garnett, S.T. (1987) Aerial surveys of waders (Aves: Charadriiformes) along the coast of north-eastern Australia. Aust. Wildl. Res. 14: 521-528.

Garnett, S.T. (1989) Wading bird abundance and distribution - southeastern coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Report to Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Service.

Garnett, S.T. and Taplin, A. (1990) Wading bird abundance and distribution during the wet season on the Queensland coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria.Report to the Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Service.

Morgan, G. (1999) ‘Chapter 2 Gulf Plains’. In: P.S. Sattler and R.D. Williams (eds), The Conservation Status of Queensland’s Bioregional Ecosystems. Environmental Protection Agency, Brisbane.

Parish, D. and Garnett, S.T. (1990) Review of potential impacts of aquaculture on wading birds in the Gulf of Carpentaria, Queensland. Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Service.

Scambler, E. (2003) Site Results 2002. In Cranes. No.6 September 2003, Birds Australia North Queensland Group.

Watkins, D. (1993) A National Plan for Shorebird Conservation in Australia, Australasian Wader Studies Group, Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union and World Wide Fund for Nature, RAOU Report no. 90.

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Recommended citation  BirdLife International (2016) Important Bird and Biodiversity Area factsheet: Gulf Plains. Downloaded from on 28/10/2016

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