About eleven months ago, in a kind of dry run for
the Big Twitch, I journeyed to Innamincka. The Cooper was high and
swarming with birds including masses of Night Herons, Songlarks and even
Red-winged Parrots which I since have found out is quite a rarity for South
Australia. This year the water levels have only dropped a metre or so, but
the surrounding country mustn't be as productive, for although there were good
numbers of Cockatiel and Budgies (see last report) other birds were conspicuous
by their absence, especially the ones I had come here to see.
I headed South East, across the Strezlecki
floodplain, and into the dune country. Whereas last year each dune was
topped with vigorous cane grass, each swale clothed in grasses, this year the
picture was much starker. And the birds
weren't there either. No Bustards or Ground Cuckoo-shrike and very few
Cinnamon Quail-thrush on the Merty-Merty track, no Flock Bronzewing or Inland
Dotterel in Sturt NP.
The one exception was Eyrean Grasswren. Last year
it had been too windy and I had dipped, and even though I had seen this birds in
the Northern Territory, I thought that seeing as I was here, it was worth
a try. Trouble was, this year, it was still too windy and the cane grass was
drastically reduced, giving me pretty much bugger all chance of seeing these
most elusive of critters. I even tried the Sean Dooley patented Grasswren
spotting method of heading off into the dune with a shovel and roll of toilet
paper, but alas, this too failed.
Then I tried a dune about 36 km from Cameron's
Corner. Within five minutes I had at least two Eyrean Grasswrens happily
bouncing along, right in front of me giving extremely crippling views- so much
easier to see when using actual binoculars and not a toilet paper roll as your
optical equipment. There were Pied Honeyeaters here too- I now have several
sightings for the year yet not a single Black Honeyeater. Where
can they be? Perhaps this may be my most glaring dip, although having said
that, I still haven't seen Chiming Wedgebill, Shining Bronze-cuckoo or even
White-winged Triller yet!
Last year I made a disastrous attempt for Grey
Grasswren at Pyampa Station just over the border in South West Queensland. A
disaster because not only did I dip on the bird, but I completely mangled the
underside of my (non 4WD) Toyota, costing thousands in repairs. This year, armed
with a 4WD and a grim sense of determination, I returned.
From the reading I'd done on Birding-Aus, I thought
the site would be kind of picturesque- an old windmill by a dam in a huge sea of
lignum. The reality (at least this year) is the dam is low (dead cow rotting on
the muddy edge), there is not a blade of live vegetation anywhere near it, let
alone any lignum. The first scraggly lignum bushes are a few hundred metres
away, along drainage lines, whilst the actual swamp (now dry and seemingly dead)
doesn't really kick in for another two to three kilometres from the dam.
With the morning breeze picking up (not a good sign
for seeing these skulkers) I trudged across the desolate plain, each footfall
raising a puff of grey dust. I think of all the days on The Big Twitch so far,
this was my most dispiriting. For not only was the landscape barren
and bereft, this was the first bird with no second chance (apart from the
Christmas and Norfolk Island species). If I missed it here, that was it and
the growing awareness that I may have to undergo this tedious, fraught process
with a dozen or more similar species left me daunted and deflated.
After an hour of these pessimistic ruminations, I
finally heard a hopeful tinkle. (Good biography title for a man recovering from
prostate surgery.) But with Grasswrens, hearing them is the easy part. Over the
next hour the slowest chase in history ensued as it involved me moving about
fifty metres in that entire time, at times down on my hands and knees,
amongst the grey powdery dust and the cattle dung and the roo pellets peering
into every tangled lignum bush in hope of a glimpse.
After another eternity without success, I am
seriously considering kicking the lignum to pieces when a movement catches my
eye. Somehow the birds had sneaked away without me seeing, despite my hawk-like
vigilance, and I had a subliminal view of one. I'm sure it was laughing at me.
And then there's two of them, half flying, half
scurrying across the open in front of me. I see their streaky backs, and big
chunky tails trailing behind them, I even see the black moustachial stripe on
one of them- Grey Grasswren! At last. Wanting more, I throw my
binoculars to my eyes, but the lens cap that I keep attached to the strap
catches beneath my nose and I almost rip my bloody head off.
And the birds are gone. I try for another hour and
get nothing. By now the wind is picking up, the sun is high and I've had it. The
view I'd had was dismal, but I did see enough salient features for
identification purposes. Tick- number 503. Oh my God, I am turning into a
So I left that Godwit forsaken place, one
tick richer, but far from satisfied. But if I thought Grey Grasswren was
hard, just wait till I try for Chestnut-breasted Quail-thrush.
Sean Dooley, August 9, 503