Into the Victorian Mallee

A long weekend should rarely go un-adventured and last weekend was no exception.  We had decided to do a camping trip with a friend over the October long weekend a while back, but we were a little unclear about where we would go. I did have one tiny requirement. I wanted to head to somewhere with a particular bird since it was breeding season and they are a bit easier to see as they will sing and call making themselves more conspicuous. Unsurprisingly to some, these birds are Striated Grasswrens. Given that criteria and also the ability for the non-bird inclined to do other things we decided on Hattah-Kulkyne National Park in Victoria. It is one of my favourite places to go as it has a wide variety of habitats including lakes, mallee and shrublands and therefore it contains a wide array of creatures.

To be honest this was not a particularly well organised trip, the car was still semi-packed after a two week trip up to Birdsville and the food shopping was done on autopilot for the usual camp food and supplies. I had read that we could not go to the usual Lake Hattah campground because they had begun to flood the lakes and do environmental watering. Therefore, the campground and tracks going there were going to be flooded. So we decided to book into the Lake Mournpall campground which was still assessable with 2WD as one of the two cars was 2WD.

I made an early break for the border on my own on Saturday morning since I did not have other commitments and the others would come later. After playing a mild form of Russian roulette with the petrol stations along the Mallee Highway, which were either closed or only had premium unleaded, I stopped in at Pink Lakes in Murray-Sunset National Park. The salt lakes were brilliant with their signature colour as I drove around to my stop. However, to make the place even more spectacular there were large numbers of wildflowers in bloom. Yellows, purples and whites dotted the landscape either close to the ground or in the trees. The most spectacular sight though was the pools of bright pink/purple pigface flowers that were in depressions and formed brightly coloured mats.

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Pigface on the edge of one of the pink lakes
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One of the blooming flowers in the Mallee

I made my way to a spot where I had seen Striated Grasswrens previously, walking through the spinifex and mallee. The spinifex was looking great and was about to set seed, with each clump having vast amounts of seed heads. I made my way to the top of a small crest after having punished my shins going through the spinifex with the needle like points. As I reached the top immediately I heard the short alarm calls of Striated Grasswrens. I quickly made myself more inconspicuous and waited. One of the birds popped up onto a low mallee branch to investigate providing some clear views and good photo opportunities. After deciding I was not a threat, the birds went about their business singing and calling and moving around the spinifex in that fashion that makes you wonder if they have perfected teleporters before humans. After a while the calls started to die down so I decided to head back to the car and leave them to their Grasswren lives, and once again being humbled that these little birds let me into their lives for a short moment. I made my way back to the car had a bit to eat and then started the rest of the journey to Hattah-Kulkyne.

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Striated Grasswren

Once I had reached the park I made my way up the Old Calder Highway to Nowingi Track. A popular place to see the now endangered Mallee Emu-wren. These diminutive birds are related to the much more well-known Fairy-wrens (as are Grasswrens) and have tail feathers that resemble those of an Emu, hence the name. These too are denizens of spinifex in mallee and coexist with Grasswrens. Unfortunately, this species is now thought to be extinct in South Australia due to massive bush fires that destroyed much of their habitat and is now only found in a few places in Victoria.

I parked the car and started to make my way along the sandy tracks. Initially I was greeted by dozens of Woodswallows, both Masked and White-browed making loud chirping calls as I walked by. They are really quite pretty birds with nice colours and a bit of attitude. Once I had cleared the Woodswallows, the rest of the area seemed fairly quiet. The occasional little dragon lizard darting off the track into its spikey abode. After a while I heard the signature contact call of the Emu-wrens, observing one was right next to the track I sat down and waited. A male with his brilliant blue mask popped up to the top of some spinifex to check me out more thoroughly, but he didn’t stick around long.

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Typical Emu-wren bum shot, but shows the tails feathers

I kept wandering the tracks for a while then made my way back to the car to head to camp. I drove along Nowingi and Konardin Tracks to the campground. On arrival I noticed a problem. The 2WD track from the information centre was closed due to flooding, so the only way in was along the sandy track 4WD tracks I had come in on.  I rung the others to let them know and we decided that they would give the 4WD track a go given there was a firm base and the wheel ruts were not too deep. I would go out after an hour to check how they were going. In the mean time I set up camp and got some things out ready for dinner. After an hour, I started making my way along the tracks. I jumped out to open a gate to see headlights coming down a dune. They had made it along the tracks with no issues at all.

The following morning was a slow start. We woke to golden light spilling over the horizon, across the lake and through the trees. The incessant cheep of Noisy Miners filled the air with the occasional chatter of parrots. The light illuminated flying insects that presented themselves as glowing undulating entities in the air. Light reflected off the water onto the underside of the trees casting beams of light across them like a printer scanning a document. Various Grebes patrolled the shallow water looking for food to eat. Later in the morning, much to the delight of onlookers, a dad Emu and 15 chicks strolled through camp picking vegetation as they went.

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A little later we decided to go for a walk out to the lookout which is about 3.5 km from the campground. It was a very interesting walk and we strolled through a variety of vegetation types, with various scrublands and mallee. I was very impressed with a small stand of Sheoaks which are taller than any I had seen previously. They stood perhaps two stories or more high. As the wind blows through Sheoaks a distinctive whooshing noise comes out and gives the place an eerie feeling. Not long into the walk Ali alerted me to a small honeyeater that had a black head. With her description I exclaimed excitedly that it was a Black Honeyeater. These are small nomadic honeyeaters that move around following the flow of nectar from plants like Eremophila. I had been wanting to see them for a number of years. In a short while we re-found the male bird with its jet black head and distinctive tapering black line down its chest. I tried to get some good photos but the bird was too wary and was preoccupied with chasing a female around.

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A Male Splendid Fairy-wren, another inhabitant of Hattah

We got to the lookout listening to a chorus of beeping Spotted Pardalotes. From the top of the lookout you can see the vast expanse of mallee that is associated with Hattah-Kulkyne. It is fantastic to see such a wonderfully large chunk of relatively intact vegetation. We walked back to the campground along a different slightly shorter track, and found some of the flooding which has caused the road closure. The water was possibly 3 feet deep along the track itself. A father and his two kids were playing in the water. We decided to walk around since I didn’t want to risk dropping my camera gear in the drink, and I couldn’t recall if I had packed fresh undies or not (I did).

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Spotted Pardalote

The afternoon was pretty relaxing. We spent time around camp and I tried getting good photos of the Black Honeyeater. I did not succeed. The only bird I could see was a male that sat high in the top of a tree and sung. It would then fly 800 m or a kilometre to another tall tree and do the same. After some time walking back and forth between the trees, I worked out his game and gave up.

Towards the end of the day we piled into the Grand Vitara which is quite a squeeze in its current “expedition” format and went back out the sandy tracks to look for Emu-wrens and check out a Mallee Fowl mound. We did hear a few groups of Emu-wrens but didn’t manage to see them and there was no Mallee Fowl at the mound. However, the mound had become larger since I had seen it last. Ali has not seen a Mallee Fowl yet and is convinced they are a myth.

I had committed to an early start the following morning to get some better opportunities to see some of the birds since they would be more active. We got up just as it was getting light and made our way back out to the Emu-wren area. In a relatively short period of time we found a group of Mallee Emu-wren. This time the birds were being a little more conspicuous and open to presenting themselves to the observers. We watched a couple of birds moving around in the spinifex. A male popped out of the top of a spinifex clump and begun singing, which was beautiful. I have seen these birds on several occasions but have only heard their contact and alarm type calls. It is higher pitched than the Fairy-wrens giving it an almost metallic quality. We saw and heard a number of groups of Emu-wrens throughout the morning, and I managed to get some pretty good photos but the curse of the piece of vegetation in the way still hinders my Emu-wren photos. One day I’ll get a decent clear shot, one day.

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Male Mallee Emu-wren…. and a stick.

Along a different part of the track, I could hear Black Honeyeaters calling. We went out to investigate. It was another male doing the same thing as the one the day before, flying between trees displaying and sitting in a tree to sing for a bit before flying to another tree. This time though, I knew his game. I watched which trees he was flying into and found one that would provide good photo opportunities, and provide me with a bit of cover so the bird wouldn’t see me as it flew in. I waited a little while and sure enough he flew in and sat beautifully in the sun. I got some great photos before he was off again having noticed the paparazzi.

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Male Black Honeyeater

After that success we did a quick check of the Mallee Fowl mound, and yes they are still a myth. Further along the track I wanted to check a spot I has seen Grasswrens previously. As we walked up to the area, I could hear Emu-wrens, and then in very close proximity to the Emu-wrens I heard Grasswrens calling. We went over and found them, but they were much less willing to stick around than the ones in Murray-Sunset. I got a few record shots, and Ali got some reasonable views (for a Grasswren) in a fairly short time, then we let them be. I suspect these ones get a lot of people following them around, but it was great to know they were still in that spot.

After packing up camp, the final quick stop was near the information centre to check out the flooding of Lake Hattah. The water was up to the 1964 flood level and the track to the campground was well under water. It was great to see the bases of the large gums underwater. At this final stop we were greeted by a group of unsurprisingly raucous Apostle Birds which are always a joy to see. We left them hassling some other tourists for their food to complete a lovely weekend, with nice weather (I didn’t mention weather, but it was damn good), good friends and cool creatures.

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