A quick trip to The Dutchmans Stern and Whyalla

Last weekend I decided to go on one of my short weekend trips that entail a rather large amount of driving. My primary objective was to survey some habitat that may be suitable for a particular bird, for which I had found some 20 ish year old records on the internet for. The bird in question is the Short-tailed Grasswren, these birds are like a chunkier larger version of the well know Fairy-wrens. However, instead of being doused in vibrant colours as in the fairy-wrens (well the males anyway), they have cryptic plumage of browns, whites and blacks beautifully streaked across their body’s. Bird field guides often don’t do them justice. Along with cryptic plumage they are also rather sneaky, rapidly running between spinifex (porcupine grass, Triodia) clumps with feeble almost insect like calls. This makes for a difficult bird to find, but this makes for a quest, an adventure.

I woke early on Saturday morning to make the drive up to The Dutchmans Stern Conservation Park a bit north of Quorn, from the Adelaide Hills. I reached Dutchmans at around 12 after filling up with petrol at Quorn. The weather was clear and cold, but pleasant. I began the walk out to the area where the records where to the north of the Stern. I made my way up into the hills that were interspersed with patches of gums, and more open areas with spinifex. Passing the spinifex I listened intently for the calls of the Grasswrens. I came across a small group of Fairy-wrens making their way through some bushes. I headed to the top of a spinifex clad hill that gave a clear view of the Stern to the south. The plains to the west could be seen, with creeks and rivers winding their way across the surface of the land. Between myself and the plains were warn hills covered with kilometres of spinifex and grass, with grass trees peppered around. While making my way through the spinifex I noticed some morbine grasshoppers, or match stick grasshoppers. Fascinating little critters with weird shaped heads. I wandered the tracks in the spinifex for several hours, walking a little way, stopping to listen. I heard very little, a few Thornbills made their way past and foraging along the way. I sat in the golden sunlight on a flat rock taking in this beautiful place for some time, escaping the city grind and rush.

Matchstick Grasshopper in the spinifex
Spinifex Hill near Dutchmans Stern
Looking west near Dutchmans
Looking up at the Stern


It was getting late, so I made my way back down through the hills to my car. The air was cooling quickly, potentially aiming for a low of -4ºC overnight. After getting back to the car I drove to the entrance of Warren Gorge, 10 km further North. I contemplated staying at the camp ground but since it was getting dark so early, I didn’t want to set up camp, have dinner and spend 12 hours getting rather cold. I decided that it might be a bit warmer over night by the ocean, I could also confidently get my Grasswren fix with a different Grasswren. So I jumped back into the car and made my way to Fitzgerald bay near Whyalla. Fitzgerald bay is a favourite camping place of mine, it’s free, and most importantly, it is surrounded by a wonderful landscape where the shore has some gnarly little mangroves, the sea is a vibrant blue, and the hills are a brilliant blue grey tinted by the blue/blackbushes and salt bushes that parade down their slopes. After cooking dinner, of a couple of sausages and a few other snacky things, I jumped into my swag that was stuffed with some extra blankets to help me endure the possible freezing night ahead. Just prior to falling a sleep I was rudely disrupted by mouse (or likely mouse) gallivanting around on my swag. I gave the swag a couple of swift taps with my hand and the trespasser moved on.

After a fairly solid night’s sleep, only woken by what I think may be been dolphins in the bay breathing, I opened the rather ridged frosted swag in the half dark. I did not escape the ice. I had breakfast while listening to the potential dolphins, and keeping a lookout but didn’t see anything. I jumped back into the car with the icy swag packed and my hands well frozen. The car advised me it was 0°C outside. I spent several minutes waiting for the ice to melt off the windows so I could see where I was driving. Then I was off to Whyalla Conservation Park, to search for Western Grasswren. This time these Grasswrens live on the plains, in chenopods (saltbush, blue/black bush), unlike the Short-tails up in the hills in spinifex. I went to the spot where I know a group reside and waited, in the cold… The car had now decided that it was -1ºC. I heard Fairy-wrens and after not too long I heard the Grasswrens! I waited patiently, then like lighting, one darted out between bushes. After a while of quietly walking around, they became use to my presence, and one was foraging within a couple of meters of me. Popping out from bushes and hopping to the next. I got some nice photos and after a rather long time I left these wonderful little birds to their foraging. I then made my way back to Adelaide, with my hankering for Grasswrens quenched and having seen some great landscapes.

Western Grasswren with a seed. I didn’t see him eat it.
It is rare to get any Grasswrens in the open, but this Western was obliging.


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