The Big Twitch- The Big 5-0-0

To: "birding-aus" <>
Subject: The Big Twitch- The Big 5-0-0
From: "Sean Dooley" <>
Date: Fri, 2 Aug 2002 12:51:13 +0800
Arrived back in Alice Springs, slightly disoriented after the whirlwind Adelaide visit. To ease myself back into the desert groove, I did the dude thing and visited the Desert Wildlife Park. Thought it would be good to check out some of the birds I'd missed out on, and get within photographable distance of others. But really the highlight of this most excellent park was for me purely mammalian. Seeing Bilbies, Quolls and Kowaries up close in the nocturnal house was a real treat. (And that cute British backpacker wasn't bad either.)
In a salute to the futile, rather than with any real hope, I trudged back up the range above Heavitree to dip for one last (sixth) time on the Spinifexbird. Heading out east of Alice I finally got onto my first Red-backed Kingfisher. As I wrote this down I suddenly realised that Spinifexbird was not the only bird I'd dipped out on here. I'd also missed out on Chiming Wedgebill. I thought I'd pick it up somewhere along the line but the only time I'd heard its distinctive call was in an aviary at the Desert Park.
As I was quickly heading out of both their ranges, I tried for one last time for both birds. At a spinifex covered hill just before Santa Teresa Mission, I failed again on Spinifexbird, but got exceptional views of Rufous-crowned Emu-wrens. The Wedgebill also failed to materialise- two birds I'll have to detour for in the West later in the year.
As you head along the Old Andado Track, every rise takes you into more and more desolate country. Santa Teresa is well named as it sits on the side of a mesa like a Mexican village in Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. Once you clear the last of the mulga woodlands and head into the open country, its a matter of time before you come across Cinnamon Quail-thrush and Banded Whiteface. In fact, the Quail-thrush would be one of the most commonly encountered birds throughout this entire section of the trip, both here and in South Australia. This is considered a difficult bird to get. Just shows how infrequently even birders get out into this part of the world.
Camped that night by a bore, (nice chap really) hoping that it would be visited by Flock Bronzewing coming in for a drink in the evening or at first light, but apart from some cattle doing their best midnight impersonation of a backpacker killer, nothing came near the bore.
At another bore just before the Mac Clarke Reserve was a female Orange Chat-bird no. 495. Mac Clarke is stuck in the middle of nowhere protecting a stand of acacia peuce  or Waddy Wood trees. These trees take so long to grow that their wood is so dense they were the preferred timber for the Aboriginal waddy or club. And also the preferred wood for fenceposts, hence their rarity now.
Because they are the only trees in an area where the next biggest plant is about twenty cm high, they make great shelter and vantage points for raptors. There were Black Kites and Kestrels and what I at first thought was a flock of Galahs. Closer inspection revealed a massive flock of Letter-winged Kite (a minimum of 106). You never know with this most enigmatic of birds. One year they are all over the place, from coast to coast, and then not seen for a decade at a time. It was a real highlight of my year to spend an hour or two amongst these beautiful black and white birds with their big owl-like eyes, suited for their night hunting.
But I had to move on. As you head south, you pass the first dunes that eventually reach the Simpson Desert. I stopped at one and heard Eyrean Grasswren but they eluded me. A little further on, and nature called. I headed off into the nearest dune, shovel and toilet paper in hand. There's been a bit of talk on this forum about the merits of seeing birds while sitting down. As soon as I was "seated", pants around ankles some grasswrens called nearby and in a scene straight out of "Carry On Twitching", I managed to see my first Eyrean Grasswren. (Number 497) Spotted Nightjar is another species reputed to be best seen "on the job". I wonder who has the biggest number two list? Now there's a birding-aus thread I'd not much care to see.
And the ticks just kept on coming. Opening a gate on Andado Station I added number 498, Gibberbird, and then on the Finke River Floodout, which is mile after mile of dense Redgum and Coolabah woodland I finally caught up with flocks of that icon Aussie species, Budgerigar. (499) Into South Australia, and the country almost immediately opens out into that desolate plains country, whether due to a quirk of geography or past overstocking I'm not sure, but by this stage, as I was moving out of Chiming Wedgebill country and into Chirruping Wedgebill territory, I didn't hold much hope of getting to five hundred today. And then, in the Witjira National Park a group of four stately Australian Bustard appeared by the side of the road. These majestic birds are one of my all time favourites, so I was doubly happy to get this bird for the milestone.
The next couple of days I spent moving down through Dalhousie Springs and along the Oodnadatta Track, where I found a terrific campsite at the Algebuckina Waterhole I didn't manage to add any new birds, but saw a lot of new country, including a long cherished aim of seeing Lake Eyre. Sure its not a startling sight while dry, but boy it still impresses.
Down to Hawker in the Southern Flinders primarily for one bird which was not even a tick according to my Big Twitch rules- the Short-tailed Grasswren. As I am going by the '94 checklist, I can't include this recent split, though come next year, when the new checklist is published that's another story. Though after three hours buffeted by the wind atop Stokes Hill Lookout, I was convinced that the taxonomists had got it wrong, and it was only a race of Striated Grasswren after all. Then I finally got a glimpse, and then a better one, and then another and now I am totally convinced that this is definitely a full species. No doubt about it.
And now, as the rain pelts down on the roof of the Hawker Pub, and the Pies have just slaughtered the Blues, I sit on 500, about to head up the Strezlecki Track. Life doesn't get much better.
Sean Dooley, August 2, 500 species. 
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