Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Outback SA and Alice Springs May 2011

Trip report: South Australian outback and Alice Springs area.
Splendid Wren near Pt Augusta

Ten days holiday: what to do? After a very successful and enthralling jaunt through outback SA and Queensland in July last year I elected to continue making the most of the amazing conditions two and a half years of record rainfall have generated in the ‘arid’ interior. The twitcher in me craved a tick-fest in Cape York or the Kimberly’s but the more sound and socially acceptable birder in me won the day and as I decided to head “up the track” (Stuart Highway) toward Alice Springs.
It would be only practically possible to tick four birds, the Rufous-crowned Emu-wren, Slaty-backed Thornbill, Chiming Wedgebill and the elusive Grey Honeyeater. I guess Princess Parrot and Night Parrot could be added to the list but I am realistic – maybe I could get one of these but both on one trip? I think not.
Day 1 – May 3. 2011.
Headed north out of Adelaide early, and this time, on my own. Had to grind my way through the agricultural-industrial zone (what some people euphemistically refer to as the bush). For me the real bush doesn’t start until I’m past Port Augusta. There is something about the big-skied, unfenced-wideness of the land north of Port Augusta that is good for the soul. 
Incidentally just north of PA is the Arid lands botanic gardens, well worth a look in its own right but also a brilliant birding spot. Rufous Fieldwren and Chirruping Wedgebill being easy to get here.
I had planned to head out west and travel through the Gawler Ranges but yet another rain event had closed all the roads. Anyway about 35 kilometres north of Port Augusta the Stuart Highway runs through some excellent mulga scrub and I’ve always found it be particularly birdiforous. A one hour stroll through the bush and I soon had Splendid, Variegated and White-winged Fairywrens on the list along with all the usual suspects such as Blue Bonnets, Southern Whiteface, Pied and Grey butcherbirds, Red-capped Robin, Crested Bellbird, Common Bronzewing and much more besides. 
A few more similar roadside stops added to the list and everywhere the country was looking brilliant, knee deep growth covering the usually barren gibber plains. I had previously travelled this way in May 2009 and the contrast was obvious.
Day 2 – May 4, 2011.

Early next morning after breaking camp I stopped roadside about 100 kilometres south of Coober Pedy and found a patch of mulga alive with birds. The air reverberated with the dawn chorus of White-fronted, Singing and Spiny-cheeked HE along with Crested Bellbirds and Rufous Whistlers. In the distance I heard a call I had never heard before and intuitively knew it was Chiming Wedgebill. The call really was chiming. In the field-guide the Chiming Wedgebill is described as virtually identical to the Chirruping but “shyer and more skulking.” This proved to be very accurate. Every time I approached the calling birds they would drop to the ground and skulk away. I could only get fleeting glimpses. Eventually I had to resort to out-skulking their sulkiness until I finally had sustained views of several birds in a group skulk and proceeded to skulk around after them for half an hour or so. First tick for the trip. High-fived myself.
In addition I flushed several Little Button-quail at this spot. These little fellas were to become a common feature at nearly every venue I visited over the next week and a half. Also spied a pair of Bourke’s Parrots here. What a bird! I know I said this last year but there is something about the subtle colours and nature of these parrots so congruent with the bush. Zebra Finches were abundant to the point of being annoying, budgies were common and several flocks of Cockatiels put in an appearance as well.
The rest of the day was mainly spent driving with random roadside stops for a bit of birding. Ended up camping near the border in magnificent mulga woodland and fancied my chances of some exceptional birding in the morning.
Day 3, May 5 2011
The birding was rubbish. Just a handful of common species was all I could muster and the dawn chorus – non-existent. It’s amazing how often a likely looking spot would turn out to be rubbish from a birding point of view while other seemingly featureless venues were brimming with birds.
This point was driven home shortly after I crossed into the Northern Territory and stopped at a venue for the Banded Whiteface outlined in the new edition of “The complete guide to finding the birds of Australia” by Richard and Sarah Thomas et al.  Just north of Erldunda is a venue about as unpromising as you could ask for. Dull, flat, uninteresting gibber all sparsely vegetated even in these excellent conditions. I stopped more as a matter of incredulity than any desire to see the Banded Whiteface. But as I approached the hot-zone pointed out in the book, there they were - right where they were meant to be. I even snapped a few close photos of them on my little digital camera. Incredible but true.
I headed straight to Alice from here and quickly set up camp to give myself time to search for Emu-wrens at the famous “tyre-in-the-pole” venue on the Santa Teresa road southeast of Alice. On the road out I could not believe this was an arid zone. It felt like I was driving through green meadows somewhere near the Grampians not the Red Centre.
Anyway when I arrived, there was already another four wheel drive parked on the verge. It just had to be a birder so I sidled up and introduced myself to the driver. He was indeed a birder and a birder of some renown especially for his bird photography – Don Hadden. We talked at length swapping birding tales and information which was great but I was running out of time to search for the Emu-wren.
I set off along the ridge and soon found Spinifexbirds and other bits and pieces but was having trouble finding the Emu-wrens – which is the way it’s meant to be of course.  Eventually I cornered a couple of them in a clump of Spinifex at my feet and waited for them to appear. I could hear them calling but they wouldn’t budge. They eventually gave me the slip so I set out further along the ridge. Eventually I heard the unmistakable call of emu-wrens again and was a led merry chase through the densest part of the spinifex catching fleeting glimpses of the birds but no ‘tickable views.’ I know this has been a subject of keen debate on the Birding Aus site lately so won’t revisit all that here and now.
Many birders are unaware of the internationally ratified treaty of ‘Bird Observability’ signed by representatives of both birders and the birds themselves. Essentially it works like this:  Birds universally know if you have seen their species before or not and if they are aware you have already seen them they must allow easy sustained views within seconds of arriving at the venue. The Banded Whiteface that very morning is a case in point.
On the other hand if they suspect you have not seen them before they are only allowed to provide you with deliberately un-tickable views and so on.  Interestingly the Night Parrot is a notable abstention from this otherwise universally recognised treaty. 
Eventually one of two things takes place according to the treaty:
1) You have suffered enough, bled enough, spent enough, travelled far enough or whatever criteria the birds want to exact from you and will then magnanimously allow you a tickable view.
2) They make a mistake and accidentally allow you to see them and are then forced to let you see them easily from then on.  
In this case it was the second. One of the male birds was attempting taunt me with an un-tickable view and for whatever reason could not get out of sight quickly enough before I focussed my bins on the cobalt blue throat patch and emu-feather tail of the bird. I can imagine the conversation between the Emu-wrens right after this.
 “Sorry guys, I messed up. I’m pretty sure he got a tickable view.”
 “What? How the hell did that happen? That’s the second time this month.”
“He had his bins right up next to his eyes and they were already focussed at the right distance and I tripped on a twig. It won’t happen again. Really.”`
For all you real ornithologists firmly stuck in reductionist, dualistic, Newtonian cosmology I trust you can bear with my anthropomorphic twaddle and can just let this pass harmlessly through to the keeper.
Anyway, high-fived myself again.
Day 4, May 6, 2011
Hit the road before dawn in an attempt to find the Slaty-backed Thornbill and Grey Honeyeater out at Kunoth Bore.
Kunoth Bore is a dump.
For whatever reason Kunoth Bore was a place of mysterious beauty in the remote Never-Never north of Alice in my imagination. After all I had read and heard about the place I guess I was expecting more. In reality it’s a muddied dam surrounded by clapped out cattle country covered in garbage and cow crap. In a dry year it would be an oasis of sorts, I guess, but not this year.
Nothing much to report at the bore itself but the birding along the youth camp road just beyond the bore was brilliant. I gave it a thorough going over checking every bit of the mulga scrub for up to five kilometres from the turnoff. Lots of birds, especially Rufous Songlark, Red-backed Kingfisher, Mulga Parrot, Ringneck, Yellow-rumped Thornbill, Inland Thornbill, Weebill, Hooded Robins, Rufous Whistlers, a lone Jacky Winter, Red-capped Robins, GST, Sittellas, Grey Flycatcher, Southern Whiteface, Mistletoebird, and Peaceful Dove to name a few. But no Slaty-backed or Grey.
After a quick lunch headed back to Alice then out to Ormiston Gorge for a look at the mountains as much as a chance of seeing some other birds. What a drive. Endless vistas and eye-gouging beauty all the way. Saw two Black-breasted Buzzard on the drive too. Did the pound walk in hope of seeing some Painted Finch, although I have seen them before they are definitely worth a another look. Spectacular views, and plenty of nice birds, but nothing unusual apart from lots of Brown HE. Dipped on the finch. Western Bowerbirds and Grey-crowned Babblers are easy to see in the campground here and Red-tailed Black Cockatoos and Peregrine Falcons along the river.
Day5 - May 7, 2011.
Decided to head into Alice and then back out to the Rufous-crowned Emu-wren site for another look. Even though I had a tickable view of these birds two days ago I really wanted a better look at them. After all I only saw them for a few seconds. Naturally this time they were required to allow me easy sustained views.  
On the way out saw a trio of birders intently looking into the roadside bush. It turned out to be Mark Carter with a couple of birding clients out for the day. We talked briefly and Mark gave me a hot tip for finding Slaty-backed thornbill.
Back out to the ‘tyre-in-the-pole’ site and as predicted the Emu-wrens obliged and I had long clear views of both the male and females birds and the juveniles as well. At one point I was actually surrounded by a whole family of birds and followed them for several hundred metres.
After this wonderful encounter I decided to have a look for the Dusky Grasswrens supposed to live nearby on the other side of the road. Once in the rocky valley just south of the Emu-wren site it didn’t take long to find an obliging group of Duskies as they scampered about the rocks and spinifex. Dusky Grasswren appear to be the easiest of all the Grasswren to see as they seem just as intend on seeing you as you are in seeing them. Also saw a couple more Spinifexbirds here too. 
Back in Alice decided to check into a Caravan Park for a much needed shower and restock the Esky. At around 1pm I heard a raucous din coming from the trees just outside the park. I assumed it would be a Bowerbird by the sound of it but was amazed to discover a juvenile Koel instead. Apparently it was being ejected from its nest by its surrogate Little Crow parents. I have a 23 year old living at home so I took notes. Joining in the melee where Yellow-throated Miners, Pied butcherbirds, and Magpies. I watched this drama for some time and realised this would be an unusual record for Alice Springs but certainly not unheard of. Testimony once again to the unusual wet conditions I would venture.
Checked the Olive-Pink botanic gardens for Grey HE but to no avail. Bowerbirds in plenty here though and for all you coffee Nazis out there the only place in Alice that make a proper coffee, great food too. That afternoon headed out to the famous ‘Desert Park’ where the Slaty-backed TB had been seen recently. I searched the whole park and all around the park and everywhere in between but no Slaty-backs. I really thought the thornbill would be the easiest of the ticks to come by but it was not to be. Nevertheless saw absolutely everything else in the area including Splendid Wren, Western Gerygone, Crimson Chat, White-winged Triller, Pied and Grey-headed HE and more besides.
Day 6 – May 8, 2011.
I woke with a throbbing headache and realised I was succumbing to the flu. Originally I had planned to head out to Newhaven Station for a couple of days but was feeling generally miserable and lethargic and decided the Newhaven trip would have to wait for another time. Still I wasn’t going to let a mere thornbill best me so headed back out to the Desert Park and thrashed the woodland all around the park and essentially reviewed all the same birds I had seen the day before. Eventually came across a party of thornbills which seemed like they could be what I was looking for. Rufous coloured rumps, white underparts, a lot like a Chestnut-rumped thornbill in many ways but no white eyes. Surely these were SBTB? No. Juvenile Chestnut-rumped it turned out. Not to worry I knew of another site near Coober Pedy where I might find them on the way home. Further up the hill came across Spinifex Pigeons.
Headed out of Alice for the return journey in the early afternoon and attempted to put a few kilometres under the belt. Camped just south of Marla.
Day 7. May 9, 2011
After stopping off at a couple of likely looking spots on the way south ended up at the Slaty-backed TB site mentioned in the T&T book in the late morning. I must confess it didn’t look very promising. Gibber covered breakaways with small patches of mulga here and there. Still the birding was actually quite good. Added Tawney Frogmouth to the list here. At length I heard the sweet high pitched call of a thornbill. I gradually homed in the calls and caught fleeting glimpses of their silhouettes and finally got a clear view and focussed my bins on the eyes – they were Chestnut Rumped.
If anyone had chanced upon me right then in the middle of nowhere, and witnessed my intense pursuit and then watched as I finally had clear views of an otherwise charming (some would even say cute) little bush bird they would have been at a loss to understand the abusive vitriol that was being poured so unjustifiably upon so innocent a creature. Only a twitcher could understand.
I left the Chestnut-rumped TB to their pursuits and hoped fervently a hungry Hobby might feature largely in their immediate future. But finding a hungry Hobby would be a problem. There were mice everywhere both night and day. Everywhere I went I saw mice in the open even in broad daylight. All the raptors I saw were fat and even a little indolent if you ask me. Some of the younger raptors even looked a bit smug for my liking. Their comeuppance awaits them I say, come the return of the El Nino. 
At Coober Pedy I headed east onto the William Creek road in the mid-afternoon which is the ideal time to drive east with the setting sun making the birds easy to see. Within a few kilometres I had Inland Dotterels, Banded Plover, and Orange Chats by the thousand. Doubtless there would be Gibber Chat here too but the vegetation and huge number of orange Chats made it difficult to spy these otherwise fairly easy to see birds. In the open gibber plains I twice came across Harriers which I assumed would be Spotted but both turned out to be Swamp Harriers. The big wet is confusing them.
Near William Creek the gibber gives way to sand dune country all covered with canegrass. Ideal Grasswren habitat but I could not find any. There were however plenty of Cinnamon Quail-thrush in this area and I flushed no fewer than 20 in the afternoon.
Eventually I made my destination on the shores of Lake Eyre right on the last rays of sunset. By this time I was feeling very low with the flu and the recent defeat by a thornbill and a cursory glance at my hand-held GPS revealed I was 15 metres below sea-level so it stood to reason.
Mice were in plague proportions here and everything had to be zipped up, put up, or eaten up as soon as possible. Went for a bit of an optimistic Night-Parrot hunt with a spotlight but only saw mice, rabbits and a cat.
Day 8, May 10, 2011-
I really wanted to see Lake Eyre in all its glory at dawn so rose early and was packed up before sunup. Lake Eyre could not be described as beautiful so much as remarkable. It really is an amazing sight. So much water and life in the flat low-lying desert. There were Gulls, Grey Teal, Red-necked Avocets, Black-winged Stilts, and Gull-billed Terns in plenty here and on the shores there were huge rafts of dead Bony Bream in their millions and above them even bigger rafts of dead locust, crickets, beetles and other insects in their billions. Fascinating stuff to be sure. On the way back to the Paj I saw my first ever Kultarr - an odd looking creature with an unusual gait.

     Boney bream on shore of lake Eyre
The road out from the Lake is a tad bumpy and runs through some of the most desolate black gibber you can imagine. If a lunar module had landed in front of me a fully suited astronauts came bounding across the land I should not have been the least bit surprised.
The corrugations of the road shook a wire loose somewhere and every now and then the horn would give a friendly toot for no particular reason especially if turning left of slowing down. Whenever I passed people parked on the side of the road the vehicle would spontaneously and gleefully toot away in a maniacal display of overt friendliness. I just had to go with it and wave and smile like an idiot. In real life I am not that friendly.
This was all well and good but due to the frequent and recent flooding road works were common and as I slowed down the horn would bleat its empty-headed refrain. I can just imagine the smoko conversations of the roadwork fellas:
“Did you see that way-too-friendly bloke in the Paj? What was his problem?” 
I imagine this would be followed up with references to “Priscilla Queen of the desert” and such. Eventually I could stand it no longer and ripped the fuse out.
Anyway I digress. I encountered more Bourke’s Parrots on the road out of Lake Eyre and also Chirruping Wedgebills, more Cinnamon Quail-thrush, and driving past a swamp, as you might expect, saw a Spotted Harrier actively hunting Songlarks. Strange year.
Back through Roxby-Downs and eventually back to Port Augusta. As I entered PA suddenly remembered another bird I should have ticked: Ground Cuckoo-shrike. I have travelled extensively and frequently all through the inland of SA, NT, NSW and Qld and have never seen a Ground Cuckoo-shrike. On pure chance alone I should have blundered into heaps of them by now. I have never actually twitched a Ground Cuckoo-shrike on the belief that I shouldn’t have to. I know once I have gone to the trouble of twitching one I’ll be clearing them out of the grill from then on. So maybe it’s for the best. Only a two tick trip, but a heap of fun, and really worthwhile seeing the outback in such luxurious glory.

Trip List

1.                  Emu

2.                  Australian Wood Duck

3.                  Grey Teal

4.                  Australasian Grebe

5.                  White‑faced Heron

6.                  Little Egret

7.                  Black‑shouldered Kite

8.                  Black‑breasted Buzzard

9.                  Black Kite

10.              Whistling Kite

11.              Spotted Harrier

12.              Marsh Harrier

13.              Brown Goshawk

14.              Collared Sparrowhawk

15.              Wedge‑tailed Eagle

16.              Little Eagle

17.              Brown Falcon

18.              Australian Hobby

19.              Peregrine Falcon

20.              Nankeen Kestrel

21.              Black‑tailed Native‑hen

22.              Little Button‑quail

23.              Black‑winged Stilt

24.              Red‑necked Avocet

25.              Inland Dotterel

26.              Banded Lapwing

27.              Masked Lapwing

28.              Silver Gull

29.              Gull‑billed Tern

30.              Rock Dove

31.              Spotted Turtle‑Dove

32.              Common Bronzewing

33.              Crested Pigeon

34.              Spinifex Pigeon

35.              Diamond Dove

36.              Peaceful Dove

37.              Red‑tailed Black‑Cockatoo

38.              Galah

39.              Little Corella

40.              Cockatiel

41.              Purple‑crowned Lorikeet

42.              Blue Bonnet

43.              Australian Ringneck Parrot

44.              Mulga Parrot

45.              Budgerigar

46.              Bourke's Parrot

47.              Pallid Cuckoo

48.              Common Koel

49.              Southern Boobook

50.              Tawny Frogmouth

51.              Red‑backed Kingfisher

52.              Splendid Fairy‑wren

53.              Variegated Fairy‑wren

54.              White‑winged Fairy‑wren

55.              Rufous‑crowned Emu‑wren

56.              Dusky Grasswren

57.              Striated Pardalote

58.              Weebill

59.              Western Gerygone

60.              Inland Thornbill

61.              Chestnut‑rumped Thornbill

62.              Yellow‑rumped Thornbill

63.              Southern Whiteface

64.              Banded Whiteface

65.              Red Wattlebird

66.              Spiny‑cheeked Honeyeater

67.              Yellow‑throated Miner

68.              Singing Honeyeater

69.              White‑eared Honeyeater

70.              Grey‑headed Honeyeater

71.              White-plumed Honeyeater

72.              Brown Honeyeater

73.              White‑fronted Honeyeater

74.              Pied Honeyeater

75.              Crimson Chat

76.              Orange Chat

77.              Jacky Winter

78.              Red‑capped Robin

79.              Hooded Robin

80.              Grey‑crowned Babbler

81.              White‑browed Babbler

82.              Chirruping Wedgebill

83.              Chiming Wedgebill

84.              Cinnamon Quail‑thrush

85.              Varied Sittella

86.              Crested Bellbird

87.              Rufous Whistler

88.              Grey Shrike‑thrush

89.              Magpie-lark

90.              Grey Fantail

91.              Willie Wagtail

92.              Black‑faced Cuckoo‑shrike

93.              White‑winged Triller

94.              Black‑faced Woodswallow

95.              Grey Butcherbird

96.              Pied Butcherbird

97.              Australian Magpie

98.              Australian Raven

99.              Little Raven

100.          Little Crow

101.          Western Bowerbird

102.          Pipit

103.          House Sparrow

104.          Zebra Finch

105.          Mistletoebird

106.          White‑backed Swallow

107.          Welcome Swallow

108.          Tree Martin

109.          Spinifexbird

110.          Rufous Songlark

111.          Brown Songlark

112.          Common Starling

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