Alice Springs Trip Report

To: <>
Subject: Alice Springs Trip Report
From: "Tim Dolby" <>
Date: Fri, 10 Sep 2010 14:40:16 +1000
Hi all, I've just written up a trip report of my recent trip to sunny Alice 
Springs. For the full report with photographs see my website at Cheers, Tim Dolby


The Background
Following a report of large numbers of Princess Parrot in the Northern 
Territory I booked a flight for Alice Springs. Fortunately friends Paul Dodd 
and Ruth Woodrow were visiting the area and they offered me a seat in their 
car. The parrots were seen west of the Mereenie Loop Track (also known as 
Larapinta Drive), and were located on Aboriginal lease land. To enter this area 
required an entry permit. The local Aboriginal community received nearly 80 
applications from birders, and due to such large numbers (and a concern over 
the impact such as large number of people would have on the environment), the 
permits were rejected. Given the circumstances I fully understand the anxiety 
of the local land owner. However in defence of birdwatchers, of any group of 
people, birders would be the most likely to be most respectful of the land and 
have the lightest footprint. This would have been in line with the laws of 
behaviour set out in Tjukurpa (the spiritual principles of the local Aboriginal 
people), particularly the relationship between people, plants, animals and the 
physical features of the land. Because our group couldn't obtain an entry 
permit, we decided to bird some of the key bird sites around Alice Springs. 
Paul and Ruth had not birded the Red Centre before, so there was much to be 
seen. We also thought we'd drive the Mereenie Loop Track (a road that requires 
a transit permit, obtained from Kings Canyon or Glen Helen), and then bird in 
Watarrka National Park. There was a recent report of someone photographing some 
Princess Parrots in Watarrka - so we were hopeful of finding suitable habitat. 
This was the second trip I'd done to the region in 3 years - I'd done a similar 
birding trip with friend Greg Oakley in 2007, see Alice Springs and Central 
Australia. On that trip the region was wonderful, but typically dry. However 
this year, 2010, heavy rains had been falling consistently over a large area of 
central Australia, replenishing underground water, and the country changed 
dramatically. After rain the drought resistant (and evading) perennial plants 
have rapidly carpeted the ground, with ephemeral wildflowers everywhere. 
Central Australia was looking fantastic! A mixture of red, green and blue: the 
red of the soil and rock scapes, the greens of the trees, flowers and grasses, 
and the blue of the sky and water. The birdlife was also prolific - with an 
abundance of Zebra Finch, Diamond Dove, Budgerigar, Crimson Chat and Rufous 
Songlark everywhere you went - and it was presumably these rains that sparked 
the rise in Princess Parrot numbers.  Special thanks to Jon Thornton and Geoff 
Jones for the use of some of their excellent images.

Tiger Flights
For the record, I flew to Alice Springs from Melbourne on Tiger Airlines. They 
are offering extremely cheap flights - the ticket from Melbourne to Alice cost 
$85! (The return flight was $160.) Beware though, my excess baggage cost $170 
(and then $70 on the way back, after tossing half my stuff). I literally could 
have bought all my logistical provisions in Alice Spring for less! So if you do 
travel via Tiger make sure you upgrade your luggage allowance; it would have 
only cost me only $20.

The Flora of the Red Centre
Before talking about the birds it's worth mentioning the plant life that was 
dominating the region. There are a number of very distinct environmental 
communities in the Centre; these includes sand dunes scattered with the 
graceful and long-lived drooping Desert Oak (Allocasuarina decaisneana) and 
Spinifex on the top (providing a stable micro-environment), riverbeds lined 
with River Red Gums, sand-plain open woodlands, tickets of mulga and 
shrublands, and sparsely vegetated rocky ridges, ranges and outcrops, sometimes 
with wet gullies. From my experience, when birding in the Centre it's important 
spend time in each of these different habitat in order to see all those  
special birds for the regions. The area has a wonderfully rich plant life, with 
some 600 species, including both rare and relict (those that have persisted 
from a time when the Centre was a much wetter place) species. While I was there 
perennial drought-evading wildflowers carpeted the ground and flowering Cassia 
and Wattle created a yellow haze over the landscape. A number of plant species 
were dominating including Desert Heath-myrtle (Thryptomene maisonneuvei), about 
1.5 m high, found mostly on dunes, in masses of densely packed flowers, Button 
Grass Dactyloctenium radulans and Broad-leaf Parakeelya (Calandrinia 
balonensis), Umbrella Bush Acacia ligulata (Watarrka is the Luritja name for 
this plant), the spectacular Flame (or Honey) Grevillea (Grevillea eriostachya) 
and Honeysuckle Grevillea (Grevillea Juncifolia), both dripping with nectar, 
Holly Grevillea (or Wickham's) (Grevillea wickhamii), Cassia (Senna 
Artemisioides), Desert Hop-bush (Dodonaea viscosa) and there three kinds of 
Spinifex (known by local Aboriginal communities as Tjanpi) - Soft Spinifex 
(Triodia pungens), Hard Spinifex (T. basdowii, which grows out from the centre 
of the clump, forming fairy rings) and Feathertop Spinifex (Plectrachne 
schinzii). Honeyeater attracting Eremophila (Emu Bush) were flowering at nearly 
every site we visited, including E. Willsii, E. latrobei, E. longifolia (a 
species we get in Victoria), and the purple Eremophila christophori and 
gilesii. The wonderful Upside-down Plant (Leptosema chambersii) was common 
along most of the Mereenie Loop Track and at Watarrka National Park, showing 
bright-red flowers around the base of the flower. This intriguing plant 
produces lots of nectar, and ground feeding birds harvest its nectar. It has 
been suggested that the flowering of this was a significant reason for the high 
number of Princess Parrot in the Centre. The attractive Desert Rose (Gossypium 
australe) was flowering around Watarrka, as was the Lantern Bush (Abutilon 
leucopetalum), and the extremely cute perennial Yellowtail (Ptilotus nobilis) 
and Green Pussytail (Ptilotus macrocephalus) were everywhere. Trees in the area 
included Snow Gum (Corymbia aparrerinja), Bloodwood (Corymbia opaca), often 
covered in flowering Mistletoe, Desert Karrajong (Brachychiton gregorii), and 
in mulga woodlands True Mulga (Accacia aneura). Finally on my flight into the 
Alice I could see that much of the rocky hill tops in the MacDonnell Ranges 
were covered with large area of the red Wild Hop / Rosy Dock (Rumex 
vesicarius), sadly an introduced species.

Bird Sites

The Mulga at Kunoth Bore
55 km north of Alice Springs, the mulga groves along the road to the Hamilton 
Downs Youth Camp (located just off the Tanami Rd, 20 km west of the Sturt Hwy) 
is an excellent place to start any trip to the Centre. The ground was covered 
with flowering annuals, and grasses were knee high. In the Mulga on the west 
side of the road about 1.5 km down there was birds everywhere. The two most 
common species were Zebra Finch and Diamond Dove; we were literally kicking 
them out of the way. Despite both species being delightful, they were also 
frustrating in their commonality, dominating the birding landscape, making it 
hard to concentrate on other species. Bird we saw included Slaty-backed and 
Chestnut-rumped Thornbill, Black, Pied, Singing, Spiny-cheeked and a possible 
Grey Honeyeater, Crimson Chat, and there were mixed flocks of Weebill, Western 
Gerygone, Red-capped and Hooded Robin, Southern Whiteface, Splendid Fairy-wren, 
many in full breeding plumage, as well as Australia (Port Lincoln) Ringneck, 
Rufous Songlark, Crested Bellbird, Rufous Whistler, Black-faced Woodswallow 
(often immature, looking very White-bellied CS like, with a small triangular 
area of black on the face), White-winged Triller and Pallid Cuckoo. Little 
Button-quail was more common than I've witnessed anywhere before - again we 
were literally kicking them out of the way (not literally). I'd estimate we 
flushed over 100 birds. Another feature of the mulga near Kunoth Bore was the 
architecture of the nests of the Mulga Ant (Polyrhachis macropa), a large solid 
soil ring covered in mulga phyllodes. Along the Tanami Road (on the way to 
Kunoth Bore) we saw a pair of Black-breasted Buzzard, easily distinguished by 
their large white wing spots. Birding around an area of Eremophila on the east 
side of track we found nesting Black Honeyeater. On dusk we staked out Kunoth 
Bore itself, hoping to see Bourke's Parrot. There were few waterbirds on the 
bore, and no land species where coming in to drink. By contrast the last time I 
was at Kunoth Bore there was nearly a hundred Common Bronzewing, amongst 
others. This time they were absent. The reason was obvious - there'd been so 
much rain in the areas that there was no need to drink at the bore. Bourke's 
Parrot, for instance, normally arrive immediately after dusk - this time they 
didn't arrive. We did here them though, roosting in the trees nearby.

Trephina Gorge
>From Kunoth Bore we headed to Trephina Gorge 85km east of Alice Springs in the 
>East MacDonnell Ranges - arriving late in the evening. With some misfortune 
>the camping ground was full, so we set up a night camp in the picnic area. 
>Almost immediately a Southern Boobook started serenading us from a few trees 
>away. When we awoke in the morning several Painted Finch feed on the ground 
>immediately next to our picnic table! As did Hooded Robin (normally a wary 
>bird, here a pair approached within several feet - we almost had to shoo them 
>away), Zebra Finch and a family of 'purple-backed' race assimilis Variegated 
>Fairy-wren. The morning colors of the gorge were stunning, vivid reds, match 
>by the white and green of Ghost Gum (Eucalyptus papuana). [It is interesting 
>to note that Trephina Gorge contains the largest Ghost Gum in Central 
>Australia.] We did the Trephina Gorge Walk, coming across a pair of Dusky 
>Grasswren at the highest point of the walk. We also quickly caught up with 
>Grey-headed Honeyeater - these two species were new birds for Paul and Ruth, 
>so not surprisingly they were very pleased with themselves. On the walk back 
>along the gorge it was a real treat to hear the call of a Grey Shrike-thrush 
>(the more rufous race rufiventris) echoing between the walls of the Canyon. 
>Other birds here include Budgerigar, Crimson Chat, Diamond Dove, Little 
>Woodswallow, Zebra Finch and calling Western Gerygone.

The Spinifex at Ormiston Gorge Turn-off
Next stop was the Ormiston Gorge turn-off 135km west of Alice Springs in the 
West McDonnell Ranges, a 220 km drive from Trephina Gorge. The main target bird 
here was Spinifexbird - I'd seen them here with Greg Oakley on my previous 
visit in 2007. Tricky birds to see at the best of time, so we were expecting a 
long search. However before we'd even got out the car a Spinifexbird flew into 
a small tree 15 feet away, calling it heart out. If only all birding was this 
easy - then again, where would the challenge be! (The harder to find the 
better.) To access this site, from Larapinta Drive, travel only about 100m and 
park on the left side of the road and search the Spinifex in this area. On my 
last trip here I'd seen Rufous-crowned Emu-wren at this site; however they 
evaded us this time round. A number of others had also reported that they'd not 
seen them at this site. We weren't particularly perturbed, and we didn't really 
search that hard (as hard as it takes to find a Rufous-crowned Emu-wren) - we'd 
planned to catch up with this species later in the trip at Santa Teresa Rd. At 
the turn-off we also saw Brown, Grey-headed and White-plumed Honeyeater, Little 
Woodswallow, Fairy Martin and Australian Ringneck. Nearby, along the Ormiston 
Gorge Access Rd (about a kilometre from the turn-off), a pair of Spinifex 
Pigeon (the white-bellied race leucogaster) flushed from the roadside to small 
rocky outcrop. This was the first for the trip and a new species for Ruth and 
Paul, giving us excellent views.

Finke River
Like the camping ground at Trephina Gorge, the Ormiston Gorge camping site was 
full, so we headed to the nearby Finke Two Mile Bushcamping Area (you can camp 
up to 2 km south and downstream of the Trail-head), a fortuitous move, as it 
proved to be a wonderful camping area overlooking the Fink River. The Fink 
River (sometimes sited as the oldest river in the world), is usually a string 
of waterholes; however it was now almost fully flowing. The campsite is 
accessed by a sandy track on the north side of the hwy - the turn-off is not 
signposted but is to the north of Namatjira Dr just past Glen Helen Resort - 
upstream from the Finke River crossing on Namatjira Dr. You will need a 4WD to 
get to it and there are no facilities, but the feel of the place is hard to 
beat, and we camped there 2 nights. Here we picked up some waterbirds including 
White-faced and White-necked Heron, Great Egret, Great Cormorant, Australian 
Grebe, Black-tailed Native-hen, Purple Swamphen, Coot, and at night heard a 
flock of Plumed Whistling-Duck. Other birds here included Black-fronted 
Dotterel, Little Grassbird, Australian Reed-Warbler, a nice flock of Red-tailed 
Black-Cockatoo, Cockatiel, Whistling Kite, Pallid Cuckoo, Rufous Songlark (fast 
becoming the bird of the trip - we were hearing them at every stop we made), 
Striated Pardalote (yellow-rumped black-headed race uropygialis), Pied 
Butcherbird and Mistletoebird. Interestingly I was starting to notice that the 
Centralian dawn chorus seemed to be starting earlier than down south (in sunny 
Victoria). Most birds called pre-dawn (starting with the Pied Butcherbird), and 
then by dawn were happily feeding away; possibly an adaptation to the usually 
harsh conditions of the Centre. In the morning a Sandy Inland Mouse (Pseudomys 
hermannsburgensis) happily feed nearby on a food scrap (a piece of ginger from 
breakfast cereal ) while we ate our breakfast. During a clear sparkling night, 
the Milky Way showed its full band of the starry lights. It's been calculated 
that you can see 3000 separate stars with the naked eye - and I think that 
night we could see them all. Also during the night distant Dingoes howled. When 
I awoke I found a footprint immediately outside my tents entrance!

Tnorala Conservation Reserve (Gosse Bluff)
Tnorala (Gosse Bluff), west of Alice Springs, is the remnant of a huge crater 
left by a comet 130 million years ago. There is a Western Bowerbird bower near 
the first picnic table, and on the walking track from the carpark we saw 
Red-browed Pardalote, Black Honeyeater, Red-capped Robin and Splendid 
Fairy-wren - with the males looking resplendent in full-breeding plumage Also 
along here we found a note drawn into the sand stating "Bird hotspot: Water 
ahead". There is a possibility that this was drawn by friends of mine, Fiona 
Parkin and Jon Thornton, who'd visited the site several days earlier. They'd 
actually flown out of Alice Springs an hour before I flew in - I must ask them. 
Since I originally wrote this I've found out that yes, Fiona had indeed written 
this message in anticipation that we might pass by! The Interweb is clearly not 
the only way to convey birding information From the top of the lookout we were 
able see Red-browed Pardalote, Grey-headed Honeyeater, Dusky Grasswren, Tree 
Martin, Little Woodswallow and a pair of very grey looking Brown Goshawk 
circled the pound - the northern form is much paler than southern Goshawk. 
Other birds here include Little Button-quail, Fairy Martin, Crested Bellbird, 
the turquoise Splendid Fairy-wren, again in full breeding plumage. Also here a 
young Military Dragon (Ctenophorus isolepis) was seen basking in the sun on 

The Mereenie Loop Track
Despite not being able to access the area where the Princess Parrot had been 
seen, we'd calculated that if we drove the Mereenie Loop (Larapinta Drive), 
we'd at least be within the range of where the birds might be. A number of 
people had said that there was appropriate habitat along the road. A distance 
of about 290 km it follows the George Hill Range and the Gardiner Range to the 
west side of Watarrka National Park. The road passes through Aboriginal land, 
so a pass is required. It is available from the Alice Springs Tourist 
Information Centre, Glen Helen Resort and Kings Canyon Resort for about five 
dollars. It's a good quality unsealed road, but is corrugated, and has some bad 
ruts (waterlines across the road), so I'd advise driving it with a 4WD. It 
passes through some beautiful scenery and rocky ranges, with woodland dominated 
by Desert Oak and Desert Kurrajong, with a scattering of small termite mounds. 
Although strictly speaking you weren't meant to stop on the Mereenie Loop Track 
we did park a couple of times (toilet breaks) beside the road to have quick 
look at some nice looking sand dunes covered in Desert Oak. These dunes were 
superb habitats for wildlife, with plants such as Upside-down Plant, Flame 
Grevillea, and Eremophila all flowering. Unfortunately there were no Princess 
Parrot,  we did however see Spiny-cheeked, Pied, Black and Grey-fronted 
Honeyeater, Crimson Chat, Western Gerygone, Crested Bellbird, Mulga Parrot, 
Australian Ringneck, our only Major Mitchell's Cockatoo, White-backed Swallow, 
large flocks of Zebra Finch and Diamond Dove feeding on seeds, and Black-faced 
and Masked Woodswallow hawked for insects. We also such feral Camel, Horse, 
Donkey and Dingo. As we passed a couple of tracks that turned west in to the 
lands that the parrots had been seen we lamented what might have been. As it 
was, these tracks were in an area that was still very wet, and it would have 
been impossible to drive them - indeed only a couple of days earlier the 
Mereenie Loop Track was closed due to rain and flood. 20 km from Watarrka 
National Park the Jump-up Lookout provided spectacular views over the land, 
including the area that the parrots had been seen. (Could you scope a parrot 
from 30 km?) The lookout was a pleasant spot to stop and get our bearings. 
Around the look out Western Gerygone was common, as were Hooded Robin, Mulga 
Parrot, Rufous Songlark and Pallid Cuckoo.

Watarrka (Kings Canyon) National Park
We camped at Kings Canyons Resort - not a bad place, bit touristy, although the 
food at the resort was dreadful and expensive. But at least you could have a 
nice cold beer in the bar. In the morning we were serenaded by Pied Butcherbird 
- the last three notes of its call sounding exactly like the last three notes 
of the ABC theme music (Da Na Naa). Our aim was to drive up and down the main 
road in the park, a road lined with Desert Oak. Mike Carter recently reported 
that a flock of six Princess Parrot had been seen on a "main road near Kings 
Canyon", so we held some hope of seeing the parrot, but unfortunately we 
didn't. While there we did a couple of walks along the parks spectacular 
gorges; the Kathleen Springs Walk and the Kings Creek Walk. The gullies on both 
walks were microclimates, supporting a range of birds and plants, including 
remnant species such as the Finke River Palm. Spinifex Pigeon (the 
white-fronted race leucogaster) was common along both walks, often, as if by 
magic, appearing at your feet when you stopped. There are a lost smaller that 
you think, almost half the size of a Crested Pigeon, which was also common. 
Red-browed Pardalote (in the upper foliage), Grey-headed, Brown and White-naped 
Honeyeater foraged for food in the River Red Gum, while Zebra Finch and Painted 
Finch (surprisingly common) regularly dropped into drink at the waterholes. 
Dusky Grasswren was also seen at the start of the Kings Creek Walk - and they 
were surprisingly tam, with a pair bouncing around the path near the first 
creek crossing. Western Bowerbird was seen and heard, often in association with 
Desert (or Rock) Fig (Ficus platypoda), calling like a cat with the flu. We 
also drove up and down Luritja Drive within Watarrka National Park - a road 
lined with Desert Oak. Birds included Mulga Parrot and Australian Ringneck, and 
a few raptors, such as Spotted Harrier and approachable Brown Falcon. After 
Kings Canyon we headed back along the Mereenie Loop, camped once again on the 
Finke River, and then headed to Santa Teresa Rd, south of the Alice Springs 

Santa Teresa Road
A series of stony slopes 32 km from the airport road about. It is a recently 
popularized site for seeing Spinifex specialist such Rufous-crowned Emu-wren, 
Dusky Grasswren and Spinifexbird. The best place to look is the spinifex just 
east of a tyre wedged in a telegraph pole. Here we found Rufous-crowned 
Emu-wren in the small valley between a ridge line about 100 metres from the 
road. On a ridge a further 50 metres north we found Dusky Grasswren. We also 
saw our second group of Grey-fronted Honeyeater for the trip, and perhaps 
surprisingly a small flock of Painted Finch. Other birds included Budgerigar, 
Pallid Cuckoo, Rufous Songlark, and Crested Bellbird - and on the drive back in 
to Alice, Swamp Harrier, Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike, Masked, White-browed and 
Black-faced Woodswallow.

Alice Springs Waster Treatment Plant
The final site for my trip was the Alice Springs Waster Treatment Plant - 
perhaps one of the best contained wetland areas in Australia. It is superb 
place to bird-watch, being an important refuge for inland waterbirds and 
stopping point for migratory waders. It's located on Commonage Rd, just south 
of Heavitree Gap. There is a birder access gate - however you need to get  a 
key from Power and Water in the Alice Springs Plaza in Todd Mall.
Although it was relatively quiet, in terms of the variety of bird species - 
presumably due to the abundance of water throughout central Australia - there 
was still some excellent birds to be seen. We walk around most of the ponds, 
with the highlights being Glossy Ibis, Pink-eared Duck, Hardhead, Yellow-billed 
and Royal Spoonbill, Black-tailed Native-hen, Red-kneed Dotterel, some nice 
flocks of Black-winged Stilt and Red-necked Avocet, Common, Wood, Marsh and 
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Common Greenshank, Black-tailed Godwit, Whiskered Tern, 
Little Crow, Tree Martin, Australian Reed-Warbler and Little Grassbird, and in 
the shrubland areas in the south-east, which was full of water,Variegated and 
cobalt-blue White-winged Fairy-wren.

Alice Springs
I stayed the final night my trip on downtown Alice Springs. The most common 
bird on the street was Australian Ringneck, the yellow-bellied black-headed 
Port Lincoln race zonaruis, a pleasant surprise - it seemed to play the role 
that a Rosella might play in south-eastern cities. Another common town birds 
was White-plumed Honeyeater, race leilavalensis, a bird that was much yellower 
than the south-eastern birds. Galah, Willie Wagtail, Pied Butcherbird and 
Yellow-throated Miner were also birds about town, as was Spotted Turtle-Dove, 
the only introduced species I saw for the whole trip! At one point I heard a 
Pied Currawong (while drinking a beer ) in the restaurant courtyard of my 
hotel. This seemed immediately odd, considering the nearest population was well 
over a thousand miles away. It turned out to be a recording, played over the 
hotels internal speakers; they were randomly playing Australiana type CDs 
(mostly new age elevator music, the sort of stuff you buy in an airport 
newsagent) - and they'd reach a CD called Australian Birds Calls.

Summing up
The recent rains in the Centre have created perfect conditions for birding. 
When I was there the days where fine and sunny  (my last day in Alice it was 33 
degrees). However just before I arrived there were some seriously heavy rains, 
with much of the Centre swamped and most of the bush tracks impassable. 
Interestingly the day I left it started to rain again - and I've just heard 
that Paul and Ruth ended up getting stuck for four days, and had to camp out, 
after their car was caught up in an overflowing river near Hermannsburg! What a 
brilliant trip, great birding and spectacular landscapes, excellent company, 
and due of the rains the plant life was at its complete best. Flowering 
Eremophila, Grevillea, Thryptomene, Cassia, Spinifex, Allocasuarina, Accacia, 
Leptosema (Upside-down Plant) and Eucalyptus says it all. Not mentioned the 
birds - with for example a feast of wren, such as Dusky Grasswren, Rufous 
Emu-wren, full breeding plumage Variegated, White-winged and Splendid 
Fair-wren. Could it get any better.

Tim Dolby

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