*Trip report: South Australian outback and Alice Springs area.*
Ten days holiday: what to do? After a very successful and enthralling
jaunt through outback SA and Queensland in July last year I elected to
continue making the most of the amazing conditions two and a half years
of record rainfall have generated in the ‘arid’ interior. The twitcher
in me craved a tick-fest in Cape York or the Kimberly’s but the more
sound and socially acceptable birder in me won the day and as I decided
to head “up the track” (Stuart Highway) toward Alice Springs.
It would be only practically possible to tick four birds, the
Rufous-crowned Emu-wren, Slaty-backed Thornbill, Chiming Wedgebill and
the elusive Grey Honeyeater. I guess Princess Parrot and Night Parrot
could have to be added to the list but I am realistic – maybe I could
get one of these but both on one trip? I think not.
*Day 1 – May 3. 2011*.
Headed north out of Adelaide early, and this time, on my own. Had to
grind my way through the agricultural-industrial zone (what some people
euphemistically refer to as the bush). For me the real bush doesn’t
start until I’m past Port Augusta. There is something about the
big-skied, unfenced wideness of the land north of Port Augusta that is
good for the soul.
Incidentally just north of PA is the Arid lands botanic gardens, well
worth a look in its own right but also a brilliant birding spot. Rufous
Fieldwren and Chirruping Wedgebill being easy to get here.
I had planned to head out west and travel through the Gawler Ranges but
yet another rain event had closed all the roads. Anyway about 35
kilometres north the Stuart Highway runs through some excellent mulga
scrub and I’ve always found it be particularly birdiforous. A one hour
stroll through the bush and I soon had Splendid, Variegated and
White-winged Fairywrens on the list along all the usual suspects such as
Blue Bonnets, Southern Whiteface, Pied and Grey butcherbirds, Red-capped
Robin, Crested Bellbird, Common Bronzewing and much more besides.
A few more similar roadside stops added to the list and everywhere the
country was looking brilliant, knee deep growth covering the usually
barren gibber plains. I had previously travelled this way in May 2009
and the contrast was obvious.
*Day 2 – May 4, 2011*.
Early next morning after breaking camp I stopped roadside about 100
kilometres south of Coober Pedy and found a patch of mulga alive with
birds. The air reverberated with the dawn chorus of White-fronted,
Singing and Spiny-cheeked HE along with Crested Bellbirds and Rufous
Whistlers. In the distance I heard a call I had never heard before and
intuitively knew it was Chiming Wedgebill. The call really was chiming.
In the field-guide the Chiming Wedgebill is described as virtually
identical to the Chirruping but “shyer and more skulking.” This proved
to be very accurate. Every time I approached the calling birds they
would drop to the ground and skulk away. I could only get fleeting
glimpses. Eventually I had to resort to out-skulking their sulkiness
until I finally had sustained views of several birds in a group skulk
and proceeded to skulk around after them for half an hour or so. First
tick for the trip. High-fived myself.
In addition I flushed several Little Button-quail at this spot. These
little fellas were to become a common feature at nearly every venue I
visited over the next week and a half. Also spied a pair of Bourke’s
Parrots here. What a bird! I know I said this last year but there is
something about the subtle colours and nature of these parrots so
congruent with the bush. Zebra Finches were abundant to the point of
being annoying, budgies were common and several flocks of Cockatiels put
in an appearance as well.
The rest of the day was mainly spent driving with random roadside stops
for a bit of birding. Ended up camping near the border in magnificent
mulga woodland and fancied my chances of some exceptional birding in the
*Day 3, May 5 2011* –
The birding was rubbish. Just a handful of common species was all I
muster and the dawn chorus – non-existent. It’s amazing how often a
likely looking spot would turn out to be rubbish from a birding point of
view while other seemingly featureless venues were brimming with birds.
This point was driven home shortly after I crossed into the Northern
Territory and stopped at a venue for the Banded Whiteface outlined in
the new edition of “The complete guide to finding the birds of
Australia” by Richard and Sarah Thomas et al. Just north of Erldunda is
a venue about as unpromising as you could ask for. Dull, flat,
uninteresting gibber all sparsely vegetated even in these excellent
conditions. I stopped more as a matter of incredulity than any desire to
see the Banded Whiteface. But as I approached the hot-zone pointed out
in the book, there they were right where they were meant to be. I even
snapped a few close photos of them on my little digital camera.
Incredible but true.
I headed straight to Alice from here and quickly set up camp to give
myself time to search for Emu-wrens at the famous “tyre-in-the-pole”
venue on the Santa Teresa road southeast of Alice. On the road out I
could not believe this was an arid zone. It felt like I was driving
through green meadows somewhere near the Grampians not the Red Centre.
Anyway when I arrived, there was already another four wheel drive parked
on the verge. It just had to be a birder so I sidled up and introduced
myself to the driver. He was indeed a birder and a birder of some renown
especially for his bird photography – Don Haddon. We talked at length
swapping birding tales and information which was great but I was running
out of time to search for the Emu-wren.
I set off along the ridge and soon found Spinifexbirds and other bits
and pieces but was having trouble finding the Emu-wrens – which is the
way it’s meant to be of course. Eventually I cornered a couple of then
in a clump of Spinifex at my feet and waited for them to appear. I could
hear them calling but they wouldn’t budge. They eventually gave me the
slip so I set out further along the ridge. Eventually I heard the
unmistakable call of emu-wrens again and was a led merry chase through
the densest part of the spinifex catching fleeting glimpses of the birds
but no ‘tickable views.’ I know this has been a subject of keen debate
on the Birding Aus site lately so won’t revisit all that here and now.
Many birders are unaware of the internationally ratified treaty of ‘Bird
Observability’ signed by representatives of both birders and the birds
themselves. Essentially it works like this: Birds universally know if
you have seen their species before or not and if they are aware you have
already seen them they must allow easy sustained views within seconds of
arriving at the venue. The Banded Whiteface that very morning is a case
On the other hand if they suspect you have not seen them before they are
only allowed to provide you with deliberately un-tickable views and so
on. Interestingly the Night Parrot is a notable abstention from this
otherwise universally recognised treaty.
Eventually one of two things takes place according to the treaty:
1) You have suffered enough, bled enough, spent enough, travelled far
enough or whatever criteria the birds want to exact from you and will
then magnanimously allow you a tickable view.
2) They make a mistake and accidentally allow you to see them and are
then forced to let you see them easily from then on.
In this case it was the second. One of the male birds was attempting to
taunt me with an un-tickable view and for whatever reason could not get
out of sight quickly enough before I focussed my bins on the cobalt blue
throat patch and emu-feather tail of the bird. I can imagine the
conversation between the Emu-wrens right after this.
“Sorry guys, I messed up. I’m pretty sure he got a tickable view.”
“What? How the hell did that happen? That’s the second time this month.”
“He had his bins right up next to his eyes and they were already
focussed at the right distance and I tripped on a twig. It won’t happen
For all you real ornithologists stuck in a reductionist, dualistic,
Newtonian cosmology I trust you can bear with my anthropomorphic twaddle
and can just let this pass harmlessly through to the keeper.
Anyway, high-fived myself again.
*Day 4, May 6, 2011* –
Hit the road before dawn in an attempt to find the Slaty-backed
Thornbill and Grey Honeyeater out at Kunoth Bore.
Kunoth Bore is a dump.
For whatever reason Kunoth Bore was a place of mysterious beauty in the
remote Never-Never north of Alice in my imagination. After all I had
read and heard about the place I guess I was expecting more. In reality
it’s a muddied dam surrounded by clapped out cattle country covered in
garbage and cow crap. In a dry year it would be an oasis of sorts, I
guess, but not this year.
Nothing much to report at the bore itself but the birding along the
youth camp road just beyond the bore was brilliant. I gave it a thorough
going over checking every bit of the mulga scrub for up to five
kilometres from the turnoff. Lots of birds, especially Rufous Songlark,
Red-backed Kingfisher, Mulga Parrot, Ringneck, Yellow-rumped Thornbill,
Inland Thornbill, Weebill, Hooded Robins, Rufous Whistlers, a lone Jacky
Winter, Red-capped Robins, GST, Sittellas, Grey Flycatcher, Southern
Whiteface, Mistletoebird, and Peaceful Dove to name a few. But no
Slaty-backed or Grey.
After a quick lunch headed back to Alice then out to Ormiston Gorge for
a look at the mountains as much as a chance of seeing some other birds.
What a drive. Endless vistas and eye-gouging beauty all the way. Saw two
Black-breasted Buzzard on the drive too. Did the pound walk in hope of
seeing some Painted Finch, although I have seen them before they are
definitely worth a another look. Spectacular views, and plenty of nice
birds, but nothing unusual apart from lots of Brown HE. Dipped on the
finch. Western Bowerbirds and Grey-crowned Babblers are easy to see in
the campground here and Red-tailed Black Cockatoos and Peregrine Falcons
along the river.
*Day5 - May 7, 2011*.
Decided to head into Alice and then back out to the Rufous-crowned
Emu-wren site for another look. Even though I had a tickable view of
these birds two days ago I really wanted a better look at them. After
all I only saw them for a few seconds. Naturally this time they were
required to allow me easy sustained views.
On the way out saw a trio of birders intently looking into the roadside
bush. It turned out to be Mark Carter with a couple of birding clients
out for the day. We talked briefly and Mark gave me a hot tip for
finding Slaty-backed thornbill.
Back out to the ‘tyre-in-the-pole’ site and as predicted the Emu-wrens
obliged and I had long clear views of both the male and females birds
and the juveniles as well. At one point I was actually surrounded by a
whole family of birds and followed them for several hundred metres.
After this wonderful encounter I decided to have a look for the Dusky
Grasswrens supposed to live nearby on the other side of the road. Once
in the rocky valley just south of the Emu-wren site it didn’t take long
to find an obliging group of Duskies as they scampered about the rocks
and spinifex. Dusky Grasswren appear to be the easiest of all the
Grasswren to see as they seem just as intend on seeing you as you are in
seeing them. Also saw a couple more Spinifexbirds here too.
Back in Alice decided to check into a Caravan Park for a much needed
shower and restock the Esky. At around 1pm I heard a raucous din coming
from the trees just outside the park. I assumed it would be a Bowerbird
by the sound of it but was amazed to discover a juvenile Koel instead.
Apparently it was being ejected from its nest by its surrogate Little
Crow parents. I have a 23 year old living at home so I took notes.
Joining in the melee where Yellow-throated Miners, Pied butcherbirds,
and Magpies. I watched this drama for some time and realised this would
be an unusual record for Alice Springs but certainly not unheard of.
Testimony once again to the unusual wet conditions I would venture.
Checked the Olive-Pink botanic gardens for Grey HE but to no avail.
Bowerbirds in plenty here though and for all you coffee Nazis out there
the only place in Alice that make a proper coffee, great food too. That
afternoon headed out to the famous ‘Desert Park’ where the Slaty-backed
TB had been seen recently. I searched the whole park and all around the
park and everywhere in between but no Slaty-backs. I really thought the
thornbill would be the easiest of the ticks to come by but it was not to
be. Nevertheless saw absolutely everything else in the area including
Splendid Wren, Western Gerygone, Crimson Chat, White-winged Triller,
Pied and Grey-headed HE and more besides.
*Day 6 – May 8, 2011.*
I woke with a throbbing headache and realised I was succumbing to the
flu. Originally I had planned to head out to Newhaven Station for a
couple of days but was feeling generally miserable and lethargic and
decided the Newhaven trip would have to wait for another time. Still I
wasn’t going to let a mere thornbill best me so headed back out to the
Desert Park and thrashed the woodland all around the park and
essentially reviewed all the same birds I had seen the day before.
Eventually came across a party of thornbills which seemed like they
could be what I was looking for. Rufous coloured rumps, white
underparts, a lot like a Chestnut-rumped thornbill in many ways but no
white eyes. Surely these were SBTB? No. Juvenile Chestnut-rumped it
turned out. Not to worry I knew of another site near Coober Pedy where I
might find them on the way home. Further up the hill came across
Headed out of Alice for the return journey in the early afternoon and
attempted to put a few kilometres under the belt. Camped just south of
*Day 7. May 9, 2011*
After stopping off at a couple of likely looking spots on the way south
ended up at the Slaty-backed TB site mentioned in the T&T book in the
late morning. I must confess it didn’t look very promising. Gibber
covered breakaways with small patches of mulga here and there. Still the
birding was actually quite good. Added Tawney Frogmouth to the list
here. At length I heard the sweet high pitched call of a thornbill. I
gradually homed in the calls and caught fleeting glimpses of their
silhouettes and finally got a clear view and focussed my bins on the
eyes – they were Chestnut Rumped.
If anyone had chanced upon me right then in the middle of nowhere, and
witnessed my intense pursuit and then watched as I finally had clear
views of an otherwise charming (some would even say cute) little bush
bird they would have been at a loss to understand the abusive vitriol
that was being poured so unjustifiably upon so innocent a creature. Only
a twitcher could understand.
I left the Chestnut-rumped TB to their pursuits and hoped fervently a
hungry Hobby might feature largely in their immediate future. But
finding a hungry Hobby would be a problem. There were mice everywhere
both night and day. Everywhere I went I saw mice in the open even in
broad daylight. All the raptors I saw were fat and even a little
indolent if you ask me. Some of the younger raptors even looked a bit
smug for my liking. Their comeuppance awaits them I say, come the return
of the El Nino.
At Coober Pedy I headed east onto the William Creek road in the
mid-afternoon which is the ideal time to drive east with the setting sun
making the birds easy to see. Within a few kilometres I had Inland
Dotterels, Banded Plover, and Orange Chats by the thousand. Doubtless
there would be Gibber Chat here too but the vegetation and huge number
of orange Chats made it difficult to spy these otherwise fairly easy to
see birds. In the open gibber plains I twice came across Harriers which
I assumed would be Spotted but both turned out to be Swamp Harriers. The
big wet is confusing them.
Near William Creek the gibber gives way to sand dune country all covered
with canegrass. Ideal Grasswren habitat but I could not find any. There
were however plenty of Cinnamon Quail-thrush in this area and I flushed
no fewer than 20 in the afternoon.
Eventually I made my destination on the shores of Lake Eyre right on the
last rays of sunset. By this time I was feeling very low with the flu
and the recent defeat by a thornbill and a cursory glance at my
hand-held GPS revealed I was 15 metres below sea-level so it stood to
Mice were in plague proportions here and everything had to be zipped up,
put up, or eaten up as soon as possible. Went for a bit of an optimistic
Night-Parrot hunt with a spotlight but only saw mice, rabbits and a cat.
*Day 8, May 10, 2011*-
I really wanted to see Lake Eyre in all its glory at dawn so rose early
and was packed up before sunup. Lake Eyre could not be described as
beautiful so much as remarkable. It really is an amazing sight. So much
water and life in the flat low-lying desert. There were Gulls, Grey
Teal, Red-necked Avocets, Black-winged Stilts, and Gull-billed Terns in
plenty here and on the shores there were huge rafts of dead Bony Bream
in their millions and above them even bigger rafts of dead locust,
crickets, beetles and other insects in their billions. Fascinating stuff
to be sure. On the way back to the Paj I saw my first ever Kultarr - an
odd looking creature with an unusual gait.
The road out from the Lake is a tad bumpy and runs through some of the
most desolate black gibber you can imagine. If a lunar module had landed
in front of me a fully suited astronauts came bounding across the land I
should not have been the least bit surprised.
The corrugations of the road shook a wire loose somewhere and every now
and then the horn would give a friendly toot for no particular reason
especially if turning left of slowing down. Whenever I passed people
parked on the side of the road the vehicle would spontaneously and
gleefully toot away in a maniacal display of overt friendliness. I just
had to go with it and wave and smile like an idiot. In real life I am
not that friendly.
This was all well and good but due to the frequent and recent flooding
road works were common and as I slowed down the horn would bleat its
empty-headed refrain. I can just imagine the smoko conversations of the
“Did you see that way-too-friendly bloke in the Paj? What was his problem?”
I imagine this would be followed up with references to “Priscilla Queen
of the desert” and such. Eventually I could stand it no longer and
ripped the fuse out.
Anyway I digress. I encountered more Bourke’s Parrots on the road out of
Lake Eyre and also Chirruping Wedgebills, more Cinnamon Quail-thrush,
and driving past a swamp, as you might expect, saw a Spotted Harrier
actively hunting Songlarks. Strange year.
Back through Roxby-Downs and eventually back to Port Augusta. As I
entered PA suddenly remembered another bird I should have ticked: Ground
Cuckoo-shrike. I have travelled extensively and frequently all through
the inland of SA, NT, NSW and Qld and have never seen a Ground
Cuckoo-shrike. On pure chance alone I should have blundered into heaps
of them by now. I have never actually twitched a Ground Cuckoo-shrike on
the belief that I shouldn’t have to. I know once I have gone to the
trouble of twitching one I’ll be clearing them out of the grill from
then on. So maybe it’s for the best. Only a two tick trip, but a heap of
fun, and really worthwhile seeing the outback in such luxurious glory.
*Trip List *
2. Australian Wood Duck
3. Grey Teal
4. Australasian Grebe
5. White‑faced Heron
6. Little Egret
7. Black‑shouldered Kite
8. Black‑breasted Buzzard
9. Black Kite
10. Whistling Kite
11. Spotted Harrier
12. Marsh Harrier
13. Brown Goshawk
14. Collared Sparrowhawk
15. Wedge‑tailed Eagle
16. Little Eagle
17. Brown Falcon
18. Australian Hobby
19. Peregrine Falcon
20. Nankeen Kestrel
21. Black‑tailed Native‑hen
22. Little Button‑quail
23. Black‑winged Stilt
24. Red‑necked Avocet
25. Inland Dotterel
26. Banded Lapwing
27. Masked Lapwing
28. Silver Gull
29. Gull‑billed Tern
30. Rock Dove
31. Spotted Turtle‑Dove
32. Common Bronzewing
33. Crested Pigeon
34. Spinifex Pigeon
35. Diamond Dove
36. Peaceful Dove
37. Red‑tailed Black‑Cockatoo
39. Little Corella
41. Purple‑crowned Lorikeet
42. Blue Bonnet
43. Australian Ringneck Parrot
44. Mulga Parrot
46. Bourke's Parrot
47. Pallid Cuckoo
48. Common Koel
49. Southern Boobook
50. Tawny Frogmouth
51. Red‑backed Kingfisher
52. Splendid Fairy‑wren
53. Variegated Fairy‑wren
54. White‑winged Fairy‑wren
55. Rufous‑crowned Emu‑wren
56. Dusky Grasswren
57. Striated Pardalote
59. Western Gerygone
60. Inland Thornbill
61. Chestnut‑rumped Thornbill
62. Yellow‑rumped Thornbill
63. Southern Whiteface
64. Banded Whiteface
65. Red Wattlebird
66. Spiny‑cheeked Honeyeater
67. Yellow‑throated Miner
68. Singing Honeyeater
69. White‑eared Honeyeater
70. Grey‑headed Honeyeater
71. White-plumed Honeyeater
72. Brown Honeyeater
73. White‑fronted Honeyeater
74. Pied Honeyeater
75. Crimson Chat
76. Orange Chat
77. Jacky Winter
78. Red‑capped Robin
79. Hooded Robin
80. Grey‑crowned Babbler
81. White‑browed Babbler
82. Chirruping Wedgebill
83. Chiming Wedgebill
84. Cinnamon Quail‑thrush
85. Varied Sittella
86. Crested Bellbird
87. Rufous Whistler
88. Grey Shrike‑thrush
90. Grey Fantail
91. Willie Wagtail
92. Spangled Drongo
93. Black‑faced Cuckoo‑shrike
94. White‑winged Triller
95. Black‑faced Woodswallow
96. Grey Butcherbird
97. Pied Butcherbird
98. Australian Magpie
99. Australian Raven
100. Little Raven
101. Little Crow
102. Western Bowerbird
104. House Sparrow
105. Zebra Finch
107. White‑backed Swallow
108. Welcome Swallow
109. Tree Martin
111. Rufous Songlark
112. Brown Songlark
113. Common Starling
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