Highlights of Mt Isa via Birdsville Track 2019: Part 2 Grey Grasswrens and the green outback

IMG_2021
A Grey Grasswren (Subspecies diamantina) on Birdsville Track hiding in saltbush.

Grey Grasswrens are somewhat of a legend in my mind. They are a mysterious, elusive creature that lives in the remote arid interior of Australia where the tales and names of early European explores abound. Grey Grasswrens are peculiar among grasswrens in both looks and habitat. They have striking black and white markings compared to earthy browns, rufous and greys of many of the other species, and they live in tangled clumps of lignum (sometimes with saltbush), compared to hummock grasses (Trioda), chenopods (e.g. saltbushes, blue/black bushes) and canegrass that the other grasswrens reside in.

In 2017 we were fortunate enough to have a wonderful encounter with these birds. However, this year when we went looking for them again on Birdsville Track, we where blown away by the experience. The floods that had come down from Queensland fueled by cyclones had reached out and turned the Grey Grasswren’s habitat green and spurred on abundant new life. There were Crimson Chats foraging, small flocks of brilliant green budgies flying over, Zebra Finches and Diamond Doves drinking from a small pool of muddy water, all surrounded by a verdant green carpet of herbaceous plants speckled with the bright colours of wildflowers. Within minutes we heard the grasswrens calling from all around us, from this or that clump of lignum or saltbush. We waited and wandered around quietly and after not too long the grasswrens were zipping between bushes and climbing to the top of clumps of vegetation to have a look at the visitors on their patch. It was clear that the grasswrens, like the other birds, were benefiting from the floods, as we saw a fledgling hopping around on the ground with its still as yet ill-defined markings. It was wonderful to see these grasswrens again and their habitat in such fine condition. It has been a bucket list item for me to see the desert in bloom and this trip certainly ticked that box.

IMG_2094
Wildflowers blooming in Grey Grasswren Habitat.

IMG_3227

IMG_2058
Crimson (top) and Orange Chats (bottom) were some of the more colourful outback residents benefiting from the floods.
Grey Grasswren habitat 2018
Grey Grasswren habitat on Birdsville track in 2017
Grey Grasswren habitat 2019
Grey Grasswren habitat on Birdsville track in 2019 after flooding

 

Highlights of Mt Isa via Birdsville Track 2019: Part 1 Eyrean Grasswrens

A brief intro.

Each year Ali and I do a longish trip somewhere around Australia. This year (2019) we decided to head up to Mt Isa. ‘Why Mt Isa?’ I hear you say. Well Mt Isa and surrounds is home to two species of grasswrens, the Kalkadoon and the Carpentarian Grasswren. This year’s trip was going to be different for several reasons. The biggest was that we had a new team member for our adventure, Otto our four month old son. We were also doing a three week trip, rather than the usual two weeks, and we would be heading back from Mt Isa along the same route as we got there, along Birdsville Track.

Highlight 1: Eyrean Grasswrens

IMG_2232
An Eyrean Grasswren with grasshopper west of Birdsville

Eyrean grasswrens live on the top of sand dunes in the Simson and Strzelecki Deserts where there is plenty Sandhill Canegrass to hide among. They are very much a boom and bust species who’s numbers dwindle when conditions are dry and the vegetation on the dunes deteriorates, but in good seasons you almost can’t walk on a dune without tripping over them.

We started searching for Eyreans on the southern part of Birdsville Track, and were successful in finding them. However, the dunes were relatively dry and the grasswrens were proving elusive. The canegrass on many of the dunes was very dry and grey despite there being some wild flowers present (certainly in less favorable condition than back in 2017 when we were there last). Despite this, further north the dune vegetation was in better condition and Little Red and Big Red dunes west of Birdsville were looking good. We saw Eyreans at both Little and Big Red, and the ones at Little Red were carrying around grasshoppers to feed to their young. However, one Eyrean grasswren on Big Red provided me with one of the most outstanding grasswren experiences I have ever had.

I spotted this Eyrean a bit further along the dune from where I was, and I went and followed it quietly. I managed to get very close to it, within a few meters, while it was foraging in a clump of canegrass. I could hear it moving around and it was well aware of my presence. It would forage in a clump of canegrass, come out to the edge for a look around, then move swiftly to the next clump were I followed it too, quietly and carefully. For about 10 minutes this went on, and it was fascinating to watch the bird so close, at one point picking up a meal worm looking insect. After the grasswrens was finished in one clump of canegrass, and to my absolute surprise and awe, the Eyrean hopped out into the open about 1 m from my leg and watched me for several moments. Grasswrens are generally very secretive and will keep their distance watching a viewer from within bushes (where you can’t see them) or perching several tens of meters away to have a very quick look at you (if you’re lucky). And there was one right there! By my leg! In the open! It was absolutely wonderful seeing this animal so close, seeing the detail in its feathers, its face and the way it stood in the sand. Great pictures are one thing, seeing the details with your own eyes and being so close to such a generally elusive animal, is just next level. I thank that little grasswren for proving me with one of the best wildlife experiences I have had in my life. I wish it all the best for its future endeavors.

IMG_3087
Thank you to this little Eyran Grasswren for proving an outstanding wildlife experience, Big Red dune near Birdsville.

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.

 

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.

IMG_0169
Pigface on the edge of one of the pink lakes
IMG_1563
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.

IMG_1321
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.

IMG_1439
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.

IMG_1473

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.

IMG_1643
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).

IMG_1585
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.

IMG_1837
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.

IMG_1774
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.

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.

IMGP7441
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.

IMGP7447
The Kestrel’s airport shed (One is sitting in the window)
IMGP7566
Male Orange Chat
IMGP7583
Female Orange Chat
IMGP6561
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.

P1070960
Landscape at the southern end of Birdsville Track
IMGP7763
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.

P1080009
Them there clouds might get you rained in!
P1080018
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.

IMGP7934
Thick-billed Grasswren!
IMGP7874
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.

P1080033
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.

IMGP8060
The friendly Rufus Fieldwren

A weekend at Beltana

Last Friday I woke a bit earlier than usual to do my final packing to head up to a friend’s cottage at Beltana, which is about 130 km north of Hawker off the highway to Leigh Creek. I got picked up from home a bit before 7 and we made our way to Gawler to meet another friend in their car. My ride was an old Holden Gemini wagon, with low profile tyres, a larger than normal engine, and a bit rough around the edges. The dive up to Hawker was rather uneventful, but it was comfortable. We got to Hawker and filled up with petrol and had some food. The Gemini drew some attention given its low clearance. We were advised that the best way to get to Beltana was to take the dirt road that goes straight north from the highway rather than the road that heads west to east. The latter road was in very bad condition according to someone who drove through in the last few days. This was contrary to what had been told.

Our first sightseeing stop was Stokes Hill Lookout, just to the east of Wilpena Pound. Stokes Hill is a worn down old hill surrounded by more worn down old hills covered in spinifex, grasses and grass trees. From the lookout you can clearly see Wilpena pound and some of the other gorgeous surrounding landscape. However, my motive for being here was not to take in the scenery. I was here for some Grasswrening (Bird watching specifically for Grasswrens). I couldn’t go through Grasswren country without having a crack. Although it was highlighted to me that I was taking more of a detour rather than going through Grasswren country. My target was the Short-tailed Grasswren. We made our way across the hills to the spot where I had seen them last year. Within a few minutes of reaching the area the non-birded of the three of us said he could hear them, then like a little brown bolt of lightning, one darted out between some spinifex some distance ahead of us. We made our way slowly and quietly through the spinifex, listening and watching. The Grasswrens were not very obliging, unsurprisingly for Grasswrens. We got glimpses of them bouncing between rocks and spinifex. On one occasion, unbeknownst to us, one was sitting in a clump of spinifex right next to us and burst out at break neck speed and disappeared up the hill. I got one set of reasonable but distant photos, and the other birder among us got good views (for a Grasswren). We left the Grasswrens in peace after not a terrible long time as this is a heavily birded site and we did not want to compound that.

IMG_7536
An old Euro reluctant to give up his seat
IMG_7563-2
Short-tailed Grasswren viewing us from afar.

Next we made our way through Brachina Gorge. The road through is ok for standard road cars, but a bit rough and rocky with a few creek (puddle) crossings along the way. We took it slow in the low slung Gemini, bumping along taking in the stunning scenery. The creamy whites and reds of the rocks that propel themselves into the sky from the bottom of the gorge dotted with green trees was magnificent. Part of the way along we saw a Yellow-footed Rock Wallaby down in the creek feeding. We pulled up and got out to take some photos. This was the closest I had been to wild Yellow-foots, and the wallaby seemed relatively unperturbed by our presence, even posing for photos from a phone. Who needs a 400 mm telephoto lens on a big camera anyway. Not much further along another wallaby was spotted. I stayed in the car as this one was a fair way away, but then an echidna was spotted. I ain’t staying in the car for that one. The echidna was plodding along by the creek giving us some excellent views of this curious creature.

IMG_7628
Yellow-footed Rock-wallaby

IMG_7689IMG_7729

We made our way further along the gorge managing to see close to a dozen wallabies and some Euros before our departure. We continued on to Beltana as the light was vanishing. We turned onto the road that heads north to Beltana. This was not the well-kept road we were lead to believe. We made our way very slowly along, dodging ditches and washouts, and broken bits of shale that looked like carefully crafted knives. The 4WD was in front spotting hazards and radioing them back to us in the Gemini. We prayed that there was not a flat tyre in our future. We also though that if this is the good road, what the hell is the bad road like. We eventually made it to the cottage and to a roaring fire, a ready to go BBQ fire, and my friend (who’s cottage it was) advising us that the road we had taken had not been graded for two years and that the other road was in much better condition. I think the person at the petrol station in Hawker had got their facts mixed up. With full stomachs and warmed bodies we headed to bed.

I woke to find the cottage situated on a spacious block surrounded by bluebush, salt bush and samphire. The town sprawls out sparsely around with old buildings, some restored and some ruins. Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s there was a population of about 3,000. That has now declined to about 24. Our main activity for the day was to have a walk through three ephemeral creeks/rivers that intersect close to the town. The vegetation around the town had been subjected to less grazing over time and has had some time to recover. The rivers are filled with large stones and rocks with big old gum trees stretching up into the sky. The trees bear scars of violent floods, with big open gashes more than a meter long and sometimes that wide. The noise of these rivers with water running through them was described to me. The rocks tumbling with the turbulent flow, plonking and knocking on each other but multiplied by millions. I imagine it sounds like a mining mill turning and breaking up the rocks inside. The huge dead tree trunks and logs pay testament to the sheer power of these events, hung up high off the ground waiting for the next significant rains to dislodge them and put them further downstream in another precarious perch. Today though, the few small pools of water were calm and clear, with tadpoles and other aquatic creatures dancing around them.

There were plenty of interesting birds including Variegated Fairy-wrens. They look like they have black heads with little iridescent blue helmets and masks on top with brilliant chestnut shoulders. I struggled to get a good photo but this was made up later in the trip with another fairy-wren. The non-locals of us were shown all sorts of interesting things. Eatable plants, grinding stones and worked chert from the first inhabitants, and in addition several plants were flowering or seeding presenting some wonderful colours and textures.

IMG_7746
Sunrise at Beltana

IMG_7767IMG_7769IMG_7776

IMG_7790
Grind stone
IMG_7791
Worked chert

IMG_7808

We wandered back to the cottage and relaxed for a bit before heading out to the Prairie Hotel at Parachilna for dinner. While relaxing at the cottage we sat in the beautiful day and watched White-winged Fairy-wrens forging near us occasionally getting a glimpse of the male in full colour. Vibrant blue all over apart from a white wing, they glow like a beacon. I really don’t understand how a bird can be so brilliant in colour. I also noticed a Chirruping Wedgebill calling from across the road. A relatively dull bird that is mostly grey with a long tail and a little crest that sits erect on top of its head. They also have quite a nice call. So I made my way over to try and see it. I got closer and closer to the bush it was in with it singing loudly. But I could not see it. I got to within a few meters but it would not show itself. I waited and nothing. Chirruping Wedgebill one, me zero. I was taunted by these birds for the rest of the weekend, hearing their calls close by, but not seeing them. I only managed one brief glimpse from a long way away. To finish off the day we had a nice meal at the hotel, my meal being a mixed grill of roo, camel and emu, and we then headed back to the cottage to sit in front of the fire and have a few drinks.

The following day, with the adventurous Gemini driver heading back to Adelaide, the remainder of us went to Warraweena Conservation Park, a station turned conservation park to the north of Beltana. We drove along the 4WD tracks, winding through hills and dry river beds to a campground where we had some lunch. One of the most fascinating landscapes we drove through were hill slopes covered in stands of callitris (native pines) on a bare substrate of broken brown shale rock. Rarely with any other plants present. It was kind of eerie. After lunch we walked (or climbed more accurately) up a small creek that ran through a valley in a ridge. We came to an opening in the ridge to see another larger ridge behind. The flora was diverse, with spinifex clumps, small gum trees, often that were flowering, and grass trees. Two of us decided to climb further up the second ridge to get a better view of the landscape. This involved more climbing, dodging spikey bushes and making sure our cameras didn’t bang against the rocks. We tried climbing to the top, but the top kept getting higher and higher as we progressed up and the light was going to disappear fairly soon. The view was spectacular, we could see the valley between the two ridges filled with interesting plants and birds calling form one end. Then behind the ridges to the east was a flat plain that we drove through that sprawled out before us. I love being in places like this, the feeling of the wild and adventure. There is a sense of peace that I get when in places like this that I don’t get anywhere else. This tranquillity was somewhat disrupted by motor bikes down on the flats roaring around, which could be heard clearly as the sound travelled uninterrupted up to the ridges. Humans are a noisy bunch.

We clambered back down to the car more easily than anticipated and somewhat regretting not taking a smaller lens for taking pictures of the landscape. We drove back slowly with a few stops, including for a pair of Red-capped Robins foraging in the callitiris. The male, fascinated by the shutter of my camera came very close, giving fantastic photo opportunities. We headed back to the cottage for dinner cooked on the fire and some more drinks before an early night.

IMG_8091
Red-capped Robin

The next day we packed our things and went for a quick walk down to one of the rivers close by. The river was teeming with birds. There were hundreds of tree martins, dozens of Elegant parrots and an array of other birds milling around. We then jumped into the car and made out way back to Adelaide with a few stops on the way for birds and lunch. One stop north of Hawker produced the goods. We stopped for the stunning White-winged Fairy-wrens, but there were also Chirruping Wedgebills (shakes fist), Redthroat, and White-backed Swallows (one of my favourite aerial acrobats). This completed a fantastic trip full of cool creatures, people and landscapes.

IMG_8188
Male White-winged Fairy-wren showing off his stunning colour

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.

IMG_7283
Matchstick Grasshopper in the spinifex
IMG_7306
Spinifex Hill near Dutchmans Stern
IMG_7310
Looking west near Dutchmans
IMG_7381
Looking up at the Stern

IMG_7384

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.

IMG_7431
Western Grasswren with a seed. I didn’t see him eat it.
IMG_7455
It is rare to get any Grasswrens in the open, but this Western was obliging.