Last weekend Ali and I did a three day trip over to north eastern Eyre Peninsula. Eyre Peninsula is one of my favourite places in Australia because it satisfies the adventurer and explorer parts of my personality. You can go down to Coffin Bay and Pt Lincoln and fish for good sized salmon and whiting off stunning beaches with brilliant blue waters, go 4WDing along sandy tracks in the national parks, go bird watching in numerous conservation parks and reserves, and visit salt lakes and warn down old rangers in the Gawler Rangers in the north.
This trip, as is the case with most local trips, I was searching for a Grasswren. However, these were not the Western Grasswren that can be seen relatively easily from Whyalla to the Gawler Rangers, or the Short-tailed Grasswren in the Gawler Rangers. No, we were searching for the Striated Grasswren of Eyre Peninsula. About a year and a half ago while helping collect grasshoppers (that’s another story) I drove along Middleback Road which runs from near Whyalla to Kimba. We drove through areas of mallee with spinifex understory. I pondered to myself to whether there were Grasswrens in these areas since the habitat looked similar to that in the mallee in eastern SA and Victoria. However, at the time I was not aware of any Grasswrens that would be found there. The Western and Short-tailed Grasswrens have different habitat preferences.
After the new Australian Bird Guide (field guide) was released someone noted that there were Striated Grasswren on the northern part of Eyre Peninsula which were apparently the same species or subspecies as the Striated (or Sandhill) Grasswren from Central Australia. In the discussion a few potential locations were mentioned and I hatched plans for a trip to find them. Note 1: Grasswren taxonomy is messy because the birds are hard to find and look very similar and considerable research is required to untangle what is really happening. Note 2: I am no taxonomist and will leave naming and distinguishing species up to the experts.
I undertook some research to see what records I could find of this bird on Eyre Peninsula. I found several records, but most were quite old and not very accurate. Even the most recent ones were almost 10 years old. Hardly looking promising. After the release of “Grasswrens: Australian Outback Identities” by Andrew Black and Peter Gower and listening to talks about the birds it became apparent that the affinity of the Eyre Peninsula (EP) Striated Grasswrens was not clear. Were they related to the Central Australian birds or the ones from Eastern SA and the Victorian Mallee? Or are they different to both? Who knows? Also what was clear is that if they were still around they were very hard to find.
It finally came to December and we headed off towards Pt Augusta on Saturday morning. After having lunch at Arid Lands Botanic Gardens we made our way to Ironstone Hill Conservation Park part way along the Middleback Rangers Road heading towards Kimba. The park had a lot of mallee, with alternating dunes with spinifex, and troughs with some chenopod type plants (saltbush/bluebush/samphire). Ironstone Hill Conservation Park runs to the west of a range which is mined, presumable for iron. We could see and hear the mine working away, with the rubble rock producing some pretty earthy colours of reds, oranges and browns. Driving along the track heading south we went over a number of dunes that looked promising, but I thought we would check out the single record I had for the park first. We reached an area that looked promising, parked the car and wandered around for a bit looking for the location. We realised that it was on the next dune. The place was crawling with Fairy-wrens. There were Variegated, Blue-breasted and the turquoise form of Splendid Fairy-wren flaunting their colours, although not to the camera. After walking around for a reasonable time through large areas of seemingly promising Grasswren habitat we made our way back to the car, set up camp and had some dinner. After a quick walk in the dark to see if we could find some (non-existent) nocturnal critters, we then jumped into the swag to be sung to sleep by the drone of the mine.
I woke quite early the following morning and went for a walk along the sandy track. This only reinforced the abundance of the Fairy-wrens and seemingly lack of Grasswrens. After breakfast we headed further south in the park to have a bit more of a look around. The variety of vegetation was fantastic, with areas of mallee, saltbush, taller open woodlands and low areas with samphire. As we were driving along we stopped to the calls of a Treecreeper, which Ali managed to see saying that the bird had red on it. It turned out to be a Rufus Treecreeper, a stunning little bird I hadn’t seen before and like the Blue-breasted Fairy-wren was on the most easterly edge of its distribution on Eyre Peninsula. I promptly jumped out of the car with my camera to find the birds had vanished before I got to see them. I was quite disappointed because they have quite a lot of character and live up to their names, spiralling their way up tree trunks looking for food. However, this was short lived as I got distracted by a Bicycle Lizard (Crested Dragon) that allowed me to get remarkable close producing an excellent photo opportunity. The Bicycle Lizards get their name from their ability to run swiftly on their hind legs when evading predators. Ali had then alerted me to a Splendid Fairy-wren that was showing off in the open. This was until I turned around with the camera. Wandering back to the car I heard the Treecreepers again calling from across the track. I made my way over, but they were very wary and kept their distance. I did manage to get some long shots and it was great to see these charismatic little characters.
We made our way back north and out of the park, checking a few promising sites that looked good for Grasswrens but to no avail. We drove along Middleback Road to a place called Secret Rocks, which is a rocky hill that has gnamma (rock holes) on top of it. Secret Rocks was mentioned as a placed that had Grasswrens in the past and I found a few old records but there was little suitable habitat nearby. After walking the rock and having a look at the surrounding vegetation and the wonderful expanse of mallee surrounded us, we headed back to the car and back towards Whyalla. We turned off south before hitting the main highway again to drive towards Munyaroo Conservation Park. We drove through a fantastic landscape with bluebush and salt bush gleaming in their blue-greys with over stories of wonderful Eucalyptus and the Middleback Rangers slowly marching along the horizon in the distance.
Eventually we arrived at one of the roads that goes to Munyaroo Conservation Park, and unfortunately there was still a relatively forbidding private landholder sign on the gate at the beginning of the road. I had known this might be an issue but hoped the sign would not still be up. While I was weighing up other options, Ali went over and found the remnants of a name on one of the signs and begun ringing people with that name in the area. The second person Ali called, turned out to be the mother of the landowner and passed on his mobile number. Ali got onto the landholder who said it was no worries to heading up to the park along the track, and that in fact we could drive up to the shearing shed and he would show us on the map where to go. Clearly not as foreboding as the sign led us to believe.
After getting directions from the landholder and his sheep dog with little booties, we headed along the track into the conservation park. I also had one record for the Striated Grasswren here too, which was about 10 years old. So we went out to the area of the record first. The habitat was looking promising, probably more so than in Ironstone Hill. Again there were dunes and mallee with strips of spinifex throughout. We found a spot to park the car and begun to have a look around. The mallee was fairly quiet, but it was getting late in the afternoon and was reasonably warm. The searches again did not yield anything. We went for a short drive further along the track to have a look around, and like Ironstone Hill found quite diverse vegetation and habitats which were very interesting. We headed back to where we parked the car initially and set up camp and had an early dinner. We went for a final walk before it got dark to search for the birds, but it was becoming quite clear that if the Grasswrens were around they were not giving themselves up easily. The following morning would be the last chance to try and see the birds before we headed back to Adelaide.
In the morning I woke quite early with the increasingly noisy chorus of birds. I left Ali in the swag to catch up on some rest and made my way back to the spots we checked the previous day, but again there was very little of anything. I then decided to try and get to the exact spot of the record I had, which involved shimmying underneath a fence and ending up in some quite dense vegetation. I wandered around for quite a long time hearing only Fairy-wrens. I stopped shortly before I was thinking of heading back to camp to play a bit song from my phone in a last ditch attempt to see if the birds were around. After stopping the recording, I heard Grasswrens calling from within a few meters of me! And then a Grasswren darted between some bushes. I had managed to find them! Hours of research and wandering through spikey spinifex had paid off. One of at least two birds popped up into a bush although still quite hidden and I got a few photographs and some short videos. The birds remained close and watching me in the thick scrub for about 20 min (not that I could see them, just moving twigs and a few calls) when I decided to move on and let them be.
I arrived back at the swag to Ali who was just waking up to announce that I had found them. Ali was quite surprised, and frankly so was I. After breakfast we went back to see if Ali could see them, but we only got a few calls and they didn’t show themselves again. We packed up camp headed out of this beautiful park, triumphant. We were greeted by the ocean on our exit from Munyaroo and dipped our legs into the water for a bit. It was very refreshing after spending a few days in the bush.
Despite being focused heavily on finding Grasswrens on this trip we did see many other wonderful creatures and landscapes. The effort to find the bird was worth it, to know that they are still there and to also come out with potentially the first photos of this population of birds is wonderful. I owe thanks to Ali for putting up with walking through spinifex for hours without reward and getting onto the landholder, and thanks to the landholder for allowing up to go on his property and being very helpful. And I also know you were wondering why the dog had booties on, it was because it followed its owner through Cowell that morning and the owner wanted to protect his feet after such an adventure.