The Flinders Ranges and the tail of two wrens

The October long weekend was coming up and we were planning another one of our short getaway trips, which was well needed. We picked the Flinders Ranges this time to satisfy both my desire to find some Grasswrens and my wife and our friend’s want to do some hiking. In preparation for the trip I had been doing some research on a specific subspecies of Thick-billed Grasswren Amytornis modestus curnamona, which occurs to the east and south-east of the Flinders Ranges to within approximately 100 km of Broken Hill. This particular bird had become my “bogey bird”. For the non-birder types this is a bird that you have specifically looked for on several occasions without success. I had literally spent days, probably almost a week just looking for this bird on multiple occasions over about two years. Those trips yielded two inconclusive photos, and a glimpse of a grey bird with a long cocked tail too far away to be a convincing anything. Anyway, my reading had highlighted that there were records of these Thick-bills east of the Flinders Ranges, and I went and got some info from some other well-seasoned grasswreners (I know it’s not a word).

We spent chunks of time throughout the week before getting the car ready and packing, including fixing/replacing the spot lights on the car. Plug and play the box said, 1.5 days later…. the lights were finally on. We drove out on Friday afternoon with our friend squished in the one backseat not taken up by the fridge slide of our three door car. We arrived at Willow Springs Station at about 9 pm and went to our campsite. Willow Springs aside from having nice private bush camping sites also has Short-tailed Grasswren (SOLD! To the gentleman with the beard).

The next morning I got up early to search the rolling old hills for the Short-tailed Grasswrens. The wind was bitterly cold as I hiked up one of the hills which was considerably steeper and taller than I had anticipated. Once I had reached the top I headed out in the direction of a couple of spots. One was where I thought I had heard the wrens last year but couldn’t stop to look at the time. Before I came to the first spot I heard the wrens calling from among the spinifex and saw two completely puff-ball grasswrens, and there was a third that I could hear calling from somewhere else. Their puffiness indicated they were as bloody cold as I was. I snapped a few photos before moving on to look for more wrens in other places. The Flinders had not had much rain and the spinifex was mostly dry apart from a few green shoots, likely from the bit of rain a month or so earlier. I was told when we arrived that an ornithological group that looks for the grasswrens each year only found three birds this year, which was concerning. I hoped to find more, however this was not the case.

Short-tailed Grasswren
A cold Short-tailed Grasswren (Flinders Ranges subspecies Amytornis merrotsyi merrotsyi) on Willow Springs Station.

I got back to camp to find the girls still in bed, and after a decent breakfast with bacon and eggs and lunch prepared we headed to Wilpena Pound. We got ourselves ready to do the Mount Ohlssen Bagge Hike. A 5.6 km, 4 hour hike to the top of Mt Ohlssen Bagge south of the Wilpena resort. As we made our way up the hill we got great views of the little rounded hills to the east draped in the wonderful Flinders Ranges colours. Eventually we could see into and across Wilpena pound to the west. On the way up we were making guesses of which peak was St Mary’s, the tallest peak in the pound. However, it became obvious nearly at the top that we couldn’t see the peak for most of the walk and had been calling several other hills St Mary’s Peak. Once we reached the top, we had some food while taking in the views. We were visited briefly by a Grey-fronted Honeyeater, and small swifts or martins were wheeling about in the wind as it gusted over the top of the peak. There were also a couple of crafty ravens (probably) milling about waiting to pick up leftovers from peoples lunches. We noticed a small Sand Goanna, which was sitting motionless in front of a hole it was presumably digging. It was a stunning creature about 75 cm or so long. After having a look and getting some pictures we let it be, but it didn’t move a muscle until after we left the peak.

Grey-fronted Honeyeater
Grey-fronted Honeyeater hanging out at the top of Mt Ohlssen Bagge.
Sand Goanna
A beautiful Sand Goanna sitting frozen at the entrance of its hole at the top of Mt Ohlssen Bagge.

After the hike, we visited Stokes Hill Lookout on the way back to camp. I went looking for Short-tailed Grasswrens again in a different spot, however this search was unsuccessful. After dinner, while sitting at camp looking up at the innumerable stars, a meteor streaked through the sky exploding into tiny glowing fragments. Both my wife and I audibly when “woooh” at the sight, and it remained in the sky long enough for our friend to look up and see it too. This was one of the most spectacular meteors I’ve seen in my life, rivalled by only one other that I had seen as a kid.

The next morning we had breakfast and got our things ready for the day. The plan was for me to drop the girls off at the beginning of the Wilkawillina Gorge walk in the north-east of Ikara – Flinders Ranges National Park and then pick them up about 8 hours later. The walk follows the stunning gorge, with tall sided rock faces of yellows, reds and oranges where Yellow-footed Rock-wallabies occasionally hang out. In the river bed, there are assortments of river pebbles of different sizes and colours including purples, reds and whites. Sometimes there are dragonflies zipping about and Tree Martins collecting mud from the edges of waterholes, and brilliantly coloured Red-barred Dragons sitting on rocks sunning themselves. Then there are also the less appreciated residents like the Mulga Snakes that disappear under rocks as you walk past. After dropping the girls off with the proper safety procedures in place and equipment at hand I headed out to look for the Thick-billed Grasswrens.

Red-barred Dragon-3
A stunning male Red-barred Dragon Ctenophorus vadnappa from a previous trip to Wilkawillina Gorge.

I pulled up to a plain dotted with low saltbush and bluebush interspersed with bare ground and rocky patches. Small dry creeks ran through the landscape cutting into the creamy brown ground. I began my search, following the creek lines and identifying thicker clumps of bushes where the grasswrens may be lurking. I wandered around, periodically stopping to listen. These landscapes are my favourite places to be. Standing out among some spindly bushes, away from the churning of modern life and without the little cloud of things I should be doing over my head. A call off in the distance catches my attention and I make my way over. A group of White-winged Fairy-wrens are making their way through the landscape. I wander on. After about 2.5 hours I went back to the car and had some food and a bit of a rest. It was looking like these Thick-billed Grasswrens were going to remain my bogey bird and become even more mythical and notorious in my mind.

Thick-billed Grasswren habitat
Sparse Thick-billed Grasswren habitat east of the Flinders Ranges.

After the break I went searching in a different area that had thicker vegetation. I found some more fairy-wrens, a Redthroat and some Southern White-face. The day was warming up and skinks were beginning to rustle and zip between the little islands of shade that were the bushes. I decided to head back to the car to find another spot to look. On the way back I noticed a bird fly up into an acacia tree. I swung my camera up to have a look, snapped a few photos, and I said to myself “That bird has a bloody long cocked tail?!”. I walked over to investigate. The bird flew out into some small bushes in front of me with the acacia to my left and another bush to my right. I couldn’t see the bird anymore, then to my right out pops a fairy-wren…… No freaken way…. Are fairy-wrens just giving me the runabout?! I promptly ignored the fairy-wren and kept watching the bushes to the front. A bird popped out onto the edge of an embankment with its long glorious tail poised above its head. It was a Thick-billed Grasswren! There were a pair of birds foraging and possibly a third calling. I followed them for a few minutes taking photos as they zipped between bushes. I was super excited to see these fantastic elusive creatures, and a long search over several years and through wonderful landscapes had concluded. After that, I let them go about their daily business, and I went back to the car to write up some notes, have a drink and have some celebratory chocolate.

Thick-billed Grasswren
After several yeas searching I finally got to see these wonderful crafty little birds. Thick-billed Grasswren Amytornis modestus curnamona.

Back at the end of the Wilkawillina Gorge hike almost bang on time the girls walked out from behind the hills having had an uneventful but beautiful walk with stunning views. We headed back to camp to cook dinner and rest up for the drive home the next day. While sitting down looking up at the sky, two rumbling waves went through the ground shaking us momentarily. It was a small earthquake and it was great to be in the open and feel it like that. The last notable, although small earthquake I’d felt was in a pub and I thought it was a noisy truck going past. The epicentre of the quake turned out to be about 20 km west of us and magnitude 2.8, which we found out the next day when we checked the seismograph that’s in the petrol station at Hawker.

The next morning we had considered heading home via the long way to look for more Thick-billed Grasswrens in other areas however one of us was not feeling great and our friend had not seen Brachina Gorge. So we decided to leave through Brachina. The gorge was very dry and no Wallabies were to be seen, only a couple of dry carcasses of what was some sort of kangaroo or wallaby. Despite the dryness it is still a beautiful drive with towering gums in the creek and rock walls rising up into the sky beside you. We made it home in good time after a fantastic weekend, and having had some great experiences, and seen and felt some very cool things.


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