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Claire Runge reports from the 2012 outback bird surveys
 

Here’s a trip report from two weeks spent surveying along the Oodnadatta track. It’s long but has a few hidden gems. Now is the perfect time to travel to the region, things are really booming, even more so than last year, and it is green in a brown kind of way. There are lots of wildflowers and a lot of grass.

The trip was part of a long-term project run by Stephen Willis at Durham University in the UK, and Richard Fuller at the University of Queensland monitoring the shifting abundance and distribution of Australian desert birds, with mega-transects along the Oodnadatta, Birdsville and Strezlecki tracks, and survey points every 16km. It’s hoped to secure funding for the next decade, and will massively enhance our understanding of the ecology and conservation needs of these outback birds.

Grey Falcon

Grey Falcon scaring the life out of some Little Corellas (image © Rob Clemens)

My two companions were Rob Clemens (formerly of Birds Australia) and Luke Geelen, who has done a lot of fieldwork in the region. The trip started in Adelaide where we did all the logistical things like buying groceries and wondering how to fit all the gear into the hire car. We spent the first night at Rangeview on the Stuart Hwy, under a shelter full of roosting welcome swallows, my first introduction to camping under the stars – I’m never going back to a tent! Our desert birding started the next morning on a high with flocks of blue bonnets and mulga parrots feeding in the chenopods nearby and a few friendly pipits wandering around our campsite.

We stopped in after lunch at the chestnut-breasted whiteface site south of Coober Pedy (thanks Peter Waanders) where we found the whiteface without too much trouble, along with good looks at cinnamon quail-thrush and the ubiquitous white-winged fairy wren.

After a night spent at Cadney Homestead it was on to Marla for the start of the transects. 5km out of Marla at our first survey site we picked up banded whiteface, closely followed by a southern whiteface – all 3 whiteface in less than a day. All species of whiteface were hard to come-by with only 3 records of the banded and 2 of the southern over the 2 weeks, with similar records on the Strez and Birdsville. The southern seems to favour dry creeklines filled with acacia woodland and shrubs. None of us was able to get a handle on the preferred habitat of the other two whiteface, as they were often absent from seemingly perfect looking habitat. However, they both seem to prefer areas of chenopod shrub with scattered eremophila and senna shrubland. (Chenopods is a term to describe the family of low often ridiculously prickly bushes found everywhere, eremophila (emubush) and senna are woody shrubs up to a metre or two in height with green leaves.)

About 40km out of Marla our survey intersected with a nice bit of mulga woodland which after the gibber plain was (relatively) chock-full of birds. I picked up redthroat, white-browed babbler, singing and spiny-cheeked honeyeaters, red-capped and hooded robin, rufous whistler, mistletoebird and southern whiteface.

We surveyed our way down to Oodnadatta and across to Coober Pedy. The aptly named Moon Plain between Oodnadatta and Coober Pedy was allegedly the site of testing for the Mars Rover, and surprisingly is also home to birds. Kestrels could be seen hawking every km or so (we did wonder what they were eating) and gibberbird are not hard to find if you walk enough gibber. These guys were not uncommon north and west of Oodnadatta, though we only lucked onto one on the southern transects. There were also a lot of holes and tracks from the long-haired rat so letter-winged kite may turn up sooner or later. (More on them later). We also spotted a lost pelican and a few orange chats travelling through the gibber plain.

After walking 400 transects across the stuff I am now an expert in the many shapes and colours of gibber. There’s the “twist your ankle at every step” gibber, “sink into dust two inches thick” gibber, “just rocky enough to guarantee a rough night’s sleep” gibber and the rarest but much sought after “cobbled lane” gibber. It is truly surprising how interesting gibber can be.

The gibber and chenopod shrubland along the track is broken up intermittently with dry creeklines filled with acacia woodland. These are good for birds like hooded and red-capped robin, brown and rufous songlarks, honeyeaters, splendid, white-winged and variegated fairy-wren, whiteface and zebra finch. If you find some eucalypt you can add red-browed pardalote, chiming wedgebill (north and west of Oodnadatta), chirruping wedgebill (south of Ood), pied honeyeater, western gerygone, weebill, slender-billed thornbill, yellow-rumped thornbill, and around water you’ll pick up mulga parrot, ringneck, corella, galah, black kite, white-plumed honeyeater, black-fronted dotterel, crested pigeon, darter, cormorants, grebes, ducks, pelican, grey shrike-thrush, yellow-throated miner, barn owl and red-backed and sacred kingfisher. Hookey’s waterhole, a few km from Oodnadatta on the Coober Pedy road is a beautiful example of a permanent waterhole, and just out of Oodnadatta on the Marla road is some very birdable eucalypt woodland along the creek.

Around Coober Pedy there are two spots with water – one is a small pond near the sportsfield. We saw nothing here. On the other side of town is the outflow from the sewage plant, a small stream surrounded by samphire. Follow Hutchinson St north until it turns to a dirt road. No waterbirds, but heard lots of little grassbirds. This would be a good place to keep an eye on as the surrounding landscape dries out.

We headed back to Oodnadatta to survey on the road south to Marree. There’s a lot of water around at the moment and south of Oodnadatta are a few water-filled creek crossings. Definitely worth checking out, we got some nice views of red-browed pardalote and chirriping wedgebill and a bunch of waterbirds.

Cinnamon quail thrush are common right now and easy to spot in chenopod shrubland, preferring sites with some grass. Listen for their high pitched contact call. They are also present in denser samphire, but impossible to see. We found them most common from Oodnadatta and further south.

Thick-billed grasswren can be found all up and down the track, I found a good place to be opposite “Patsies Car”, an old rusted out blue car on the right-hand side of the road from Coober Pedy to Oodnadatta. We found these grasswrens anywhere the saltbush was taller than 0.75m. The best way to find them is to wander around listening for the faint contact call. If you hear it you know they are within 150m. Don’t go rushing over to where you think they are, they will hide and go silent. The best way is to scan around surrounding bushes waiting for one to perch, if you see one perched you will soon see more hopping around on the ground nearby. Playback and pshing does not work, though very softly imitating their contact call does seem to intrigue them enough for you to approach. Rufous fieldwren like similar habitat, though were more common between William Ck and Marree.

Budgies and zebra finch are both impossible to avoid seeing at the moment.

There were two sites along this track that just blew us away with supreme bird awesomeness and I’ll tell you about the one we first came across. Somewhere about halfway between Oodnadatta and William Ck is the start of the dune on the left hand side of the road and a creekline on the right. E28.10928 S135.77128. We came across a huge mixed flock of woodswallows and lots of perching budgies. Black-faced, masked, white-browed and white-breasted. Then I saw it – a pied honeyeater! I had begun to doubt these birds actually existed, having spent plenty of time in suitable habitat but never seen one. There were a lot of other birds here too, including songlarks, honeyeaters, robins and whistlers. We went to bed on a high that night, little knowing that even more excitement was in store for us the next day.

Somewhere between 32 and 40km south of William Creek is a gate on the right-hand side of the road heading south, a couple of hundred metres before a big sand-dune perpendicular to the road. E29.06679 S136.52073. Through these gates is a birding mecca, a small waterhole overlooked by the dune. Drawn to it by the massive flock of corella, we had only just got out of the car when a flock of flock bronzewing flew by, and there must have been fifteen pied honeyeater flitting around. As it was getting late in the day and this was our next survey site, we stopped to camp the night in a state of awe. Dawn brought a succession of birds in to drink, starting with Bourke’s parrots. About halfway through the transects I saw it – a crimson chat, our first for the trip. I radioed it through and turned around. “Make that crimson chat and Bourkes parrot”. The reply came a minute later “Rob can top that. He’s got a pair of grey falcon”. There was no way I was finishing that transect so I bolted back to the waterhole where the grey falcon were perched in a face-off with a flock of ravens. We set up the scope and while we were watching when the view of grey falcon was obscured by flock bronzewing. Honestly! On our transects we also came across chirruping wedgebill, diamond dove, budgie, splendid and white-winged fairywren, banded whiteface, brown falcon, nankeen kestrel, wedgetailed eagles, more pied honeyeaters, dotterel, grebe, rufous whistlers, orange chats and robins.

If we had been anywhere near a town I would have bought a lotto ticket because on our very next transect 16km south I came across 15 inland dotterel. Of course the guys were at the opposite end of the transect and had left their radios in the car. I must really like them because I ran that 800m across gibber to tell them. We lucked onto another group of dotterel a few days later.

A night or so later we stayed at Coward Springs where we fell asleep to a horror-movie soundtrack of howling dingoes and shrieking barn-owl. The “hot springs” are better described as “slightly warm springs” but where else can you sit in the bath and watch spotted nightjars hawking? Plus the chance to wash was much appreciated by all three of us (and probably those around us). An early morning bird of the wetland behind the campground turned up spotless crake, black-winged stilt, black-fronted dotterel, rufous fieldwren and loads of little grassbirds in addition to the usual suspects.

A little way down the road are some mound springs, now a national park. These are definitely worth a look from a geological and cultural perspective, though not the bird-haven that you might expect from a permanent source of water. We saw red-necked avocet and red-capped plover on an ephemeral lake on the drive in, plus a few dotterel and brown songlark around “The Bubbler”. There are more unsigned mound springs along the Oodnadatta track, keep your eyes peeled.

We picked up black-tailed native hen, pink-eared duck, Horsefields bronze-cuckoo, pallid cuckoo and a few other things at Bereford waterhole.

Other birds seen along the track include wedgetailed eagle (including a nesting pair with two downy chicks), brown falcon, spotted harrier, black falcon, pipits, black-faced woodswallow, white-backed swallow, little-button quail, stubble quail, Aus raven, little crow and probably a few others I have forgotten. Unfortunately no letter-winged kites and my travelling companions were too sensible to drive the extra 4hrs up the Birdsville track to see the nesting lwks despite my protestations that they were lame and would lose all birding cred if they didn’t. *sigh* we all regretted it when we saw the amazing photos of what we missed.

Most numerous bird probably goes to budgie, though it is a close contest between budgie, zebra finch, white-winged fairy wren (look at these closely though, splendids often hang out with them), nankeen kestrel and orange chat.

Budgerigar

Budgerigar – the ultimate nomad! (image © Rob Clemens)

Interestingly, while the robins were quite common on this trip, last year none were seen. Nankeen kestrel which were everywhere this year were also far less common last time.

We stopped off at the Flinders Ranges on the way home which at any other time would have been amazing but it doesn’t compare to letter winged kite, and the level of grazing-induced degradation was just depressing. To top things off we dipped out on the short-tailed grasswren despite wandering through spinifex for hours. An unfitting end to an amazing trip! Picked up more redthroat, inland thornbill, elegant parrot and yellow-tufted honeyeaters among others which perked me up a bit. The Leigh Creek retention dam was worth stopping for, full of great crested grebes (we counted 75!), all types of cormorant and grebe and a few white-fronted chat, plus musk duck.

All in all we drove 3000km, walked 160km of gibber, did 350 point counts and 400 transects, spent 14 glorious nights camped under the stars, woke covered in frost 4 times, showered twice, drank 4L of port and a bottle of tequila, and picked up 112 species along the transects with a further 25 along the way.

As most of these are nomadic birds I offer no guarantees, but can recommend the Oodnadatta track as a great alternative to the tracks further east. The road is in good condition having been recently graded, there are towns with fuel and water every 200km, incredible scenery and amazing birds.

Claire Runge