Yes, its true, "The Big Twitch" now has an
official bogey bird. Sure, there's been contenders before such as Gould's
Petrel which turned up on boat trips I wasn't on; and others such as Antarctic
Prion which turned up on boats I was on, but didn't get good enough views.
But you expect that with pelagics. They are always something of a raffle-
you get out there and you take your chances.
With Spinifexbird, I now have a bona fide
bogey bird. I knew it would be tricky, but thought it would be pretty gettable.
Oh how wrong I was.
It all started off benignly enough with a run from
Watarrka to Uluru- not so much for the birds but taking my
friends to do some banking, the nearest branch to them being at Yulara
Resort. A six hundred kilometre return trip to the bank- welcome to the future
for all of us if current banking practices continue. The trip did give
me the excuse to go and have a gawk at the rock, which is one of the few
things in life that lives up to the hype. Seeing it rise out of
the sandplains you can't help be impressed and reminded just how unique the
I also got two new birds for the list- Pink
Cockatoo and Bourke's Parrot both seen by
roadside early in the morning. This was a much more pleasant encounter with
the latter species than the last time I came this way in 1988. I was asleep in
the back of the bus when the driver ploughed through a flock. When we
stopped, I walked to the front of the bus and there, flattened up
against the grille, was a dead Bourke's Parrot. Not only was it distressing
to see the little fella squished like this, but I wasn't to see a live Bourkie
until last August, a full thirteen years later.
After Watarrka I headed into the West
MacDonnells-Welcome to Superlative Country. The scenery here is absolutely
awesome. I found myself at every stop mouthing the kind of hackneyed phrases
that TV sports presenters always use. I won't bore you with my impressions
here, suffice to say the words "magnificent", "awe-inspiring", "amazing" and
f***ing brilliant" were on high vocabulary rotation throughout my travels.
(Palm Valley and Ormiston Gorge particular highlights.)
Peter Wilkins, one of the authors of "Where to Find
Birds in the Northern Territory" had told me that Tnorala (Gosse's Bluff), the
comet crater that rises from the surrounding plain was THE best spot for both
emu-wren and Spinifexbird. He did add a caveat that since he had left
the area there had been a fire so he didn't know whether the habitat would
be affected. Let me assure you it was affected. There is now no habitat there
for Spinifexbird, save for some in the sacred site area which is off
This state of affairs continued right
throughout the MacDonnells. A massive fire has swept through the spinifex belt
for much of the Western half of the Range. Ormiston Gorge now has no
habitat. (Though it did have Grey-crowned Babbler, Western Bowerbird and the
Golden-backed race of Black-chinned Honeyeater in the campground, along with
dingoes and masses of very bold Feral Cats.) There is also no habitat left
at the Ochre Pits or the two other sites I had for this
bird. The Dolomite Walk at Ellery Creek Big
Hole is also wiped out, but fortunately the spinifex plain there is still in
tact. (Ellery Creek Big Hole- sounds like the name of a police snitch in a
Raymond Chandler novel.)
I spent the best part of two days here moving
through that spiky plain. I bumped into a British twitcher, Neil, who was after
Rufous-crowned Emu-wren. As luck would have it, I managed to see one- a female.
He didn't. But do you reckon I could find bloody Spinifexbird?
Hot, tired, and with my legs covered with more
pricks on them than a [insert favourite joke target group here ie a busload of
parking inspectors] I retired to the swimming hole at Ellery Creek. The water
there is the coldest I have ever been in. You know those parties where you fill
up the laundry trough with ice, and at the end of the night you're sure you've
got one more beer left and you plunge your searching hand into the ice and water
mixture- well it was exactly that temperature.
I gave it another shot the next morning and after
another three hours of spiking, I was trudging back defeated when what should
fly up from the spinifex ridge in front of me? No, not Spinifexbird, but a flock
of thirty Painted Finch, bird number
489. So this is where they go and feed. In all my trips to
the gorges where they were supposed to congregate, I had heard not a peep.
By the time I got into Alice I was getting
desperate. I'd remembered that John Cox said he'd got them virtually in Alice
itself, above Heavitree Gap. So I booked myself into the motel below and made
the arduous climb up the ridge five times, once, for the first time in my
birding life even forgetting my binoculars, that's how flustered this little
mongrel was making me.
It was really starting to get me down. If I
couldn't get a moderately common, though cryptic species like this, what chance
did I have of getting all those other skulking buggers out in the Australian
And then, to interrupt my pessimistic
ruminations, I got the call from Adelaide. Franklin's Gull still there.
What a dilemma: stay and look for the Bogey Bird or risk a mad dash of 1600
kms for the American vagrant.
Will let you know next time,