The Big Twitch- Watarrka

To: "birding-aus" <>
Subject: The Big Twitch- Watarrka
From: "Sean Dooley" <>
Date: Thu, 25 Jul 2002 05:05:27 +0800
I spent five days at Watarrka National Park (pronounced in "Language", I was assured by a local  Aboriginal, as "Wa-da-ka", with the same rhythm as you would pronounce modicum) or King's Canyon for you whitefella traditionalists. Apart from an account in "Where to Find Birds in the Northern Territory" (Donato et al) I had no info for this area, but as an old school friend was working on staff at the resort, I figured it was as good a place as any to start my Centralian extravaganza.
And thank God I had my friend's floor to sleep on, as King's Canyon Resort is the most expensive place in Central, if not all of Australia. If you have been aghast at the prices at Yulara, well the same mob runs King's Canyon and they up their Yulara prices by ten percent. ($26 a night for an unpowered campsite for  starters).
King's Canyon Resort is an example of getting it almost right. The intentions are there, it just falls short in the execution. The sullage ponds are a good example. The idea was to send all the resort's waste to some settling ponds where the treated water would be used to maintain a eucalypt plantation which would take out the excess nutrients and provide future firewood for the resort. Unfortunately in practice, the ponds weren't engineered quite right to be efficient, and the trees were planted too close together so that they crowd each other out and can't grow properly, thereby leaving the nutrients in the soil, and the resort still has to ship in loads of wood from wherever.
These problems are partly due to a high rate of staff turn over, meaning no one project gets seen through properly. The current gardener has got the National Parks on his back and spends all his time weeding because the previous gardener ignored this ongoing aspect. Weeds such as Buffle Grass sweep in along the roads, and others such as Mossman Grass come in attached to bushwalkers socks and when they get to the campsite and pick the burrs out, quickly sprout in the disturbed grounds of the resort and threaten to infest the park, much to the chagrin of the rangers.
Not that Parks and Wildlife Service management have a clean slate either. They are now known locally as "Sparks and Wildfires" for the amount of wildfires they have caused when control burns go bad. But they have a difficult task before them, because after so many good seasons in the Centre there has been a profusion of growth, and as it is now dying off as the dry returns, the fuel load is phenomenal, and without fuel reduction burns, the whole lot could go.
It was to Parks and Wildlife that I handed over the injured Boobook I had picked up the night before. The ranger looked distinctly unimpressed and I got the impression that he would just as soon dash it against the nearest tree as try to rehabilitate it. But the head ranger was a top bloke and when I was talking to him over what was about, he agonised before letting me in on the fact that there had been a sighting of Princess Parrot in the park within the last six months. (Pretty vague I know, as were his directions- I guess he was pretty worried about hordes of rabid twitchers swarming over some very sensitive habitat.) Needless to say the bird is not there now as I spent three days in the area looking. The habitat didn't look encouraging, but the huge amount of old seed heads on the spinifex showed why the bird would have been there.
As a result of my flogging of this site, I didn't spend much time around the canyon- a pity really because it is truly spectacular. The brief climb I did yielded some of the specialties of the Central Ranges I'd come to see- Grey-headed Honeyeater, Spinifex Pigeon and Dusky Grasswren. The Spinifex Pigeon, which is common around the car park, instantly became my favourite pigeon- they are just so full of character. In the freezing early mornings (actually below zero) they curl themselves up into a fluffy ball to keep warm, only their unicorn crests sticking up to destroy the spherical illusion.
Out looking for the Parrots, I climbed a smallish sandstone rise to gain my bearings. The habitat was fairly trashed- fire and vehicle damage, with only a few scraggly spinifex hanging on. So I was pretty surprised to find Dusky Grasswren there, and completely gobsmacked when a male Rufous-crowned Emu-wren poked its head up. These birds aren't supposed to be this easy, but there it was. It took a good look at me taking a good slack-jawed look at it and then disappeared, never to be seen again. Virtually bouncing back down the hill, a pair of Ground Cuckoo-shrike flew into the tree above me and then driving back to the canyon, (staring down a male camel along the way) I put the bird tape on to familiarise myself with the call of Painted Finch which is supposed to be fairly regular at the bottom of the canyon. The tape had moved on to Red-browed Pardalote when I stopped at the car park. I got out and slammed the door and thought I had left the tape running. But no, in the tree above me was a Red-browed Pardalote calling its head off. And then to top the morning off, a Black-breasted Buzzard circled over the road at the turn-off to the canyon.
There were other good birds on my stay there, including Little Button-quail, Grey-crowned Babbler, White-backed Swallow, Red-tailed Black-Cockatoo and Western Bowerbird. And even away from the grandeur of the canyon the scenery is awesome- vast sandplains of spinifex and Desert Oak. Definitely a great place to visit, even if you can get all the birds here elsewhere.
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