Alice Springs Trip 2016 Part 1: Introduction, and Adelaide to Coward Springs.

Last year Ali and I did a two and a bit week driving trip from Adelaide to Alice Springs and back. Our intended route was to head up to Marree, along the Oodnadatta Track, to Coober Pedy, then Uluru and Kings Canyon, taking the Mereenie Loop into the West MacDonnell Rangers, and on to Alice Springs. Then on our way home we would head through the Painted Desert and down the Oodnadatta Track and back to Adelaide. This trip was about seeing some beautiful Australian landscapes and icons, getting a better feel of the culture in these areas (as much as I can as an introvert), and finding awesome creatures that live in some of the harshest environments on earth.

This series of posts is based on a 14,000-word diary that I kept during this trip. I have taken parts of the diary and edited them to make them more palatable to the general reader. I hope that you enjoy.

P.S. Sorry to non-birdy people about the bird centric nature of these posts. I hope you still find them sufficiently interesting.

 471.5 km                        28/5/16  

Today was a packing and driving day. After zipping around the hills picking up things for the trip, and getting some roast beef from mum. We made our way through the hills to Clare, Hawker, and then Wilpena. The drive up was nice, not too much traffic and not too many roos. I did have to slow down for a couple of roos, but that was not an issue. Much better than the carnage experienced on one of our previous trips to the Flinders Rangers. It was apparent all the way up that there had been a lot of rain. Pools of water everywhere, creeks full and soaked ground. It was great to see. As we got into the southern Flinders, the sun was beginning to set. Beautiful colours of golds, reds and purples developed. Once it got dark, I saw a large bird flush from behind a sign. If flew to the left of the road and I slowed a bit to see it as it flew next to us. It turned out to be a Barn Owl, which turned and looked at us briefly as it flew away. Ali was excited and I was pretty chuffed since I hadn’t seen one for a long time. This will be the first bird on the list. We set up camp quite quickly and had a dinner of haloumi and Mum’s roast beef heated on the frying pan. It was quite nice and I was glad that she had given it to us. The aim for tomorrow morning was to search for Short-tailed Grasswrens, then hopefully a leisurely drive to Marree.

766.3 km                        29/5/16

This morning we woke at a reasonable time after a somewhat restless cold night. We had breakfast and went to get petrol and pay for the campsite. We went off to find Short-tailed Grasswren at Stokes Hill lookout. The spinifex was looking quite a lot better than our last trip with green growth coming though and some seed heads. We got quite close to some Southern Whiteface, which was cool. We walked around the spinifex clad hills with no luck finding the grasswrens. We had a quick look at the lookout then headed to Appleinea Ruins. The spinifex looked quite a lot better here. We found a tree full of Tree Martins and some Elegant Parrots. No Grasswrens, but I was not holding my breath for them. We stopped at the start/end of the Heysen Trail and got good views of Redthroats and Variegated Fairy-wrens. We then headed out towards Blinman and Parachilna, which was beautiful, the small sharp hills scattered all over the landscape with stands of Callitris giving are real feeling of a wide three dimensional space with the close hills rushing past and the ones further out rolling along the horizon more slowly. Just before Parachilna we left the hills quite abruptly to a flat plain. We drove to Leigh Creek then a small town just north to stop and have lunch. Ali wanted to see the coal mine which we could see driving north on the highway with mounds of what I assume is waste rock that went for kilometres; it was a huge expanse. On the way to Lyndhurst and beyond we stopped at a few creeks to look for birds. We saw lots of Fairy-wrens and a metallic call drew my attention at one spot, which I think was a Rufus Songlark. We also stopped at a historic town (Farina) established in 1878 and associated with the Old Ghan railway. Initially it had wheat fields that failed unsurprisingly (with hindsight, maybe less surprisingly to George Goyder). Just before we got to Marree we contemplated heading up the Birdsville track to a camp ground called Clayton about 52 km from Marree since it was still quite early. As we drove into town we saw some birds of prey, so we turned around in front of a caravan park that had a little workshop. We went back to a couple of Nankeen Kestrels on a shed and a sign. After taking some nice photos we went to leave and found one tyre completely flat. It must have been a very fast leak. After changing the tyre, we turned around back to the caravan park with the workshop. We were approached by a man (Brenton) who told us that the shed we were looking at (with the Kestrels) had been the airport check-in building or something along those lines. Brenton said he could fix the tyre in the morning. So we decided to stay the night there. We cooked dinner and then joined other people at the campfire set up by Brenton and his wife, and had a bit of a chat before heading to bed.

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Kestrel sitting atop its shed

1,018.2 km                      30/5/16

Today was a wonderful day. I got up quite early and had a shower, then went for a walk up the road. There was a creek crossing with quite a bit of saltbush that I wanted to check out. The Kestrels were back by the airport shed and I took some more photos. To make the morning more spectacular there were some rain showers to the east that were beautifully lit by golden light from the rising sun. I returned after about an hour to find Brenton had fixed the tyre, although he could not find anything wrong with it. I rolled the tyre back to car awkwardly while grappling with my large camera, binoculars and backpack. I think Brenton and his mate were probably thinking “weirdo city slickers”. I discovered about 6 months later that there was actually a large gash Brenton had fixed up. This had failed while we were in the Gawler Rangers. I must have miss interpreted what he had said. We put the tyre back on the car and headed off up the Birdsville Track to Clayton campground. I wanted a taster of this track since we did not have many kilometres to do that day. On the way up Ali spotted a couple of birds. I saw a flash of yellow orange. They were a pair of Orange Chats! One of the birds I was after. They stayed quite close as I squatted along the ground towards them. I laid down on my front fairly close to the male. He was hopping along the ground feeding. After a short while, he popped onto the top of a short (10 cm high) plant to give some great photo opportunities. Ali had held back so not to scare the bird, but got a brilliant shot of me taking the photo of the chat. The female also then popped onto the top of the plant. It was wonderful to see these brilliantly coloured birds.

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The Kestrel’s airport shed (One is sitting in the window)
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Male Orange Chat
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Female Orange Chat
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Me taking photo of Orange Chat (courtesy of Ali)

We drove further along the lowly undulating plains with their stunning colours. Alternating patches of red gibber, green herbs, bushes and trees, interspersed with yellow grass. I have a feeling these plains are not as lively and vibrant when there hasn’t been much rain. The lack of shade and shelter in this place would also be deadly in summer, in the blazing sun. Even now when the temperature is barley in the low 20s and we have jumpers on, the whole day the sun is kicking me through the car window. Further down the track we found a river crossing with some quite good vegetation (saltbush and trees). We found a couple of male Pied Honeyeaters doing their breeding display where they fly up into the air and glide down again. We also got a good look at a Chirruping Wedgebill, and saw a few parrots, either Blue Wings or Elegants. We arrived at the Clayton Campground and went for a walk to the wetlands nearby. From a distance we saw some Diamond Doves near some water. As we walked back down the wetland, we heard Budgies. I had not seen them before in the wild. As we walked we flushed a small group accidently. They stopped in a nearby tree and we got to view these brilliant vibrant green birds. They were happily preening each other and I was very pleased to see them.

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Landscape at the southern end of Birdsville Track
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Budgies smooching

We headed back to Marree where we topped up with petrol and water. Then onto the Oodnadatta Track. As we headed along the track, big rain clouds started to appear. We stopped a few times for birds and saw a Rufus Fieldwren and Cinnamon Quail-thrush, and checked out Kati Thanda (Lake Eyre) South. There appeared to be patches of water among the salt but it was difficult to tell. We headed further along the track and saw the two planes with their tails in the ground called Plane Henge. We also stopped at a couple of mound springs. However, by this time the weather was quite bad. It was cold, with strong wind and rain. We went onto Coward Springs where we would spend the night. We set up camp and checked out the small museum and artesian bore spar. I looked through the bird and survey lists for the Thick-billed Grasswren (one of my target species), but I could not find any records. This was contrary to a couple of records I found on the internet. Anyway we asked the lady who owns Coward Springs about where the camels were (they run camel tours) and if she knew of any Grasswrens close by. She said someone had found them in Saltbush, and that the camels were not there at the time. I would attempt finding the Grasswrens in the morning. We decided to jump into the bore spar despite the wind and cold outside. It felt warm to touch with your hand and we jumped in our boardies. However, the water was not quite as warm as we thought, still nice though, but getting out was not so nice. I had convulsive shivers before managing to fumble my clothes on. We went back to camp to cook dinner and decided to put the tarp up just in case it started raining again. Which it did. We got into bed. I could hear rain, and lots of it, with lightning and thunder. I was concerned because it would likely close the road delaying our arrival at Coober Pedy.

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Them there clouds might get you rained in!
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One of the mound springs with a vast expanse of not much behind it

– km                                 31/5/16

After a restless night of rain I got up quite early to see if I could find some Grasswrens. I was getting hammered by mosquitos to the point I tied my hood around my face and had my hat on and my hands in my pockets. I didn’t get my camera out because it was too dark and it would have left my hands as bait for the mossies. I didn’t see Grasswrens, but I did see a male Variegated Fairy-wren in full colour with his beaming blues and chestnut tones. There were also several Zebra Finches nesting. I went back to camp after an hour bloody sick of the mossies bitting my temples. When I got back Ali was already packing up camp. A guy camped next to us came up and asked if we were leaving, he said the roads would likely be too boggy to get through and the road may be closed. We spoke to the owner and there was 12 mm of rain over night, one tenth of the annual average rainfall for the area. So we decided not to leave given the limitations of our car (particularly low clearance). We went back out to have another walk. The tracks and soil were very muddy and walking on the gibber you would sink a few inches each step you took. Not far off a track we spotted a small bird on top of a bush. It flew off, dropped to the ground and ran into a bush. I looked through the binoculars and it was a Grasswren! We watched the birds for about 20 minutes or so, and took lots of pictures. There were some younger birds with light coloured beaks and adults. It was wonderful to watch these crafty birds. They have eluded me for several previous trips.

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Thick-billed Grasswren!
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Another Thick-bill

The amount of rain up this way over the past few months or so has made things quite green, I assume, and from what I heard from the owner at Coward Springs. We walked back to camp feeling triumphant, and spoke to the owner again to tell her that we found them. After sitting around for a bit we went for a walk to the wetland formed by the artesian bore. It is quite beautiful, although small. It replicates the environment of a mound spring. The water flowed away from the spar through bull rush, forming a small creek running off into the distance. In the water and next to it are thin sedge type plants. In the clear water are small fish, gobies of some sort (Desert Gobies). A couple of Grassbirds were flitting about and a water birdy noise was coming from the corner of the rushes. Swallows were drinking from the water while on the wing. It was lovely and peaceful.

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The wetland associated with the bore at Coward Springs

I walked back to camp while Ali still looked around a bit more. I was not feeling great due to poor sleep. Ali came back and the water birdy noise turned out to be a Spotless Crake. We went for another walk back to where the Grasswrens were to get pictures of the vegetation and look at the plants the birds were using. The Grasswrens were there, occasionally going to the tops of bushes to look around. Both in the morning and evening we heard the birds calls, contact calls almost sound like crickets, and their songs were beautiful and metallic. I got some more photos, and since the birds were not getting closer I took some short videos. One with a rather large insect. Also hanging around was a Rufus Fieldwren, sitting atop bushes singing its heart out with its alarm like song (I say alarm because it reminds me of an alarm that used to wake me up). It came within a few meters of us and gave us some fantastic photo opportunities. We then went back to camp and started a fire with the old sleepers that the owners dropped at the camp area, which the stranded travellers could use. A fire is good for moral. We had a nice dinner, despite my sin of forgetting the pesto. The sky was clear at sunset. I hoped it would stay that way and we could get to Coober Pedy, if only a day late. Despite the rain delaying our plans, it was a nice day and I saw things and had experiences I would not have had otherwise.

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The friendly Rufus Fieldwren

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